Management Insights: Sometimes, You Need to Motivate in Different Ways

By Devora Zack

For more than 12 years I was a regular at a local gym. It is safe to say I was well known, and although there was a policy to check all gym identifications upon entry, this formality had long since been waived for me.

One day, a new guy showed up at the front desk. Turnover tended to be high, especially for the 5:00 to 10:00 a.m. shift, so this was a typical occurrence. However, within a couple of weeks life would revert to normal and my gym ID would be tucked back away, allowing easy, fast entrance, unencumbered by the time and formality of showing and scanning a card.

This new guy, however, relentlessly demanded to see my ID every day — in a monotone voice, to make matters worse. There was only one logical explanation: He was a jerk. I decided I hated him.

One day, a revelation

Every morning I’d grit my teeth, slowing down my rushed routine for this wretched guy who clearly knew I was a member. This was a gym, not an airport! How serious do we really need to be?

My mornings were being encumbered, and it was his fault!

Then, one day I had a revelation.

He was just doing his job. Maybe he was not a jerk. Maybe he was highly responsible. Maybe he took his straightforward job very seriously. Maybe he was the best front desk employee the gym had ever had.

The next day I showed up at my usual time, learned his name (James), and introduced myself. I told James I could tell he did a great job working the front desk, that they were lucky to have found him. And, with my reframing, I really meant it. Imagine the extra energy, commitment, and devotion it takes to check everyone’s ID rather than just doze behind the desk and let people flow in.

We became friendly; he started greeting me by name. Along the way I realized James was shy, so he didn’t initiate connections with the members streaming in each morning. Yet he welcomed a friendly face, which mine had become.

One day I was relaying this story to a coaching client and he asked the kicker question: When did James stop checking my ID?

Just doing his job

James continued to check my ID; he never stopped. The difference was that I was now prepared for the ritual, offering my card up easily each morning as we greeted each other, inquiring about weekends, the weather, or recent events. Shifting one’s perceptions and actions does not rely on expecting others to change. The only change required is in our own minds. We have control.

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Reframing the scenario to determine that I caused the friction, not James, gave me the freedom to change the scenario without altering a single external factor —  except his response to my radically different expectations and behavior. James went from rude to friendly. Or did I?

Looking back, I can see he was a T doing his job. I was an F looking for a friendly connection. Neither of us changed who we are; we just met midway at a comfortable working medium.

I’ve got news for you, sunshine. What we’re talking about here is a lifetime commitment. Like a mobile phone contract, only worse. Or like physical fitness — you can’t exercise one week and cross health off your list of things to do. Flexing your style is a line item to work on throughout your tenure as a manager. That’s okay; it grows on you after a while.

Motivating people in different ways

Flexing requires customizing your communication to motivate different staff members. If you are a flaming F, you need to behave as an off-the-chart T at times to accomplish your F mission statement. You can become so skilled at impersonating a T that an innocent bystander may confidently proclaim you to be a T. Yet you remain an F at your core, flexing your style, brilliantly.

What you see is not always what you get. This doesn’t mean you are artificial. You have nothing in common with fruit roll-ups containing no actual fruit.

You needn’t change your inherent personality to be a gifted and committed manager. You merely acquire the skill set of motivating different people in different ways. Gold stars, all around.

A word to the wise: Don’t cool your heels waiting for others to meet you at your spot on the temperament continuum. Make that your job; save yourself the aggravation.

Excerpted from the book Managing for People Who Hate Managing by Devora Zack with permission from Berrett Koehler Publishers 2012

Devora Zack, the CEO of Only-Connect Consulting, Inc., is an expert speaker, strategy consultant, author, and executive coach. She has served as a visiting faculty member of Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management’s Leadership Skills Program for 15 years, teaching MBA students from across the world. A certified practitioner in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Ms. Zack has also worked as an investigative reporter, emergency counselor, actress, and disc jockey in the U.S. and Italy. Contact her at


1 Comment on “Management Insights: Sometimes, You Need to Motivate in Different Ways

  1. I have recently been facilitating some management coaching sessions and my next group will be sure to here this story about perception & adaptation! Thank you for sharing.

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