The Psychology of People Management: How to Motivate People to Be Their Best

Two months into my new management gig, and I very nearly made a huge mistake. 

There I was, blind to the strengths of my teammate, trying stubbornly to fit the teammate into a role he did not want. I was failing him as a manager, and worse, I was projecting my management failure onto him. I, the mighty manager, must be right; he must be the one failing.

I realized my mistake after a series of hard conversations and a bundle of self-reflection. I realized it just in time. Not only had he yet to write off me or the company, he was still so gracious and warm-hearted as to become a trusted colleague and amazing part of our team, thriving in the role I should have been more aware of all along.

My mistake was one of hubris, definitely, but it was also one of ignorance.

I didn’t know how to manage people.

I knew how to manage things: projects, timelines, goals, outcomes.

People are not projects. They are not cogs.

We want to get people into the right seats on the bus, not treat people as the seats themselves.

These lessons in — well, I guess you’d say these lessons in humanity — had a huge impact on me. Prior to these experiences, I saw management as an ordered, predictable role to be conquered. It was science. It was testable and provable. I was relieved to find out the opposite is true: management is messy, not orderly; spaghetti, not lasagna.

Moreso, management is incredibly humane — or at least my greatest successes as a manager have come when I leaned into my humanity and embraced the humanity of my teammates. Imagine my relief when I realized that all the lessons in love and trust and respect and belonging that I had absorbed as a teammate and parent and friend could be and should be applied to management.

For new managers, there is no one way to manage. I hope I can share some perspectives that you can pick and choose from, to remind you of the personage of those you manage. For veteran managers, you probably know this stuff better than I do; I trust many of these management principles are familiar to you already. I hope you might stumble on a new resource or idea.

Here then is my roundup of the perspectives and strategies that have shaped my management philosophy.


Jump to any section:


How I Manage

The things I believe to be true about managing people.

  • People want to do their very best.
  • They want to feel like they belong to a team and are working for a purpose.
  • They want to be noticed.
  • They want to be needed.

People operate rationally. They do the best they can with the information they have. So give them all the information!

Encourage lavishly.

Be a coach, be a mentor, be an advocate. Do not be a friend.

When in doubt, re-read First, Break All the Rules.

If still in doubt, read High Output Management.

If strapped for time, read A Manager’s FAQ on Medium.


The psychology of people management

Alfred Adler and the keys to belonging and significance

"More Hugs, Less Fights" art print
“More Hugs, Less Fights” art print by Andy Westface

Belonging and significance are the primary goals of all people.

Dr. Jane Nelson, Positive Discipline

“All people” definitely includes the people you manage.

The concept of belonging and significance came from psychologist Alfred Adler, the creator of individual psychology, a branch of psychology that emphasizes positivity and places great importance on your developing years.

The Cliff’s Notes version of individual psychology goes like this:

  • Individual psychology takes a positive attitude of human nature
  • Everyone controls their own destiny. We are not victim to circumstance.
  • Early in life, we establish a lifestyle and beliefs that stay with us
  • We are motivated by goal-setting and purposeful behavior with the intent to become our best selves

“Become our best selves.”

(ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

What a beautiful outcome to achieve! I cannot think of anything more noble or beautiful or impactful for a manager to do than to help — in any small way — a teammate become her or his best self.

So of course, that raises the question: How do you do that, exactly?

I believe it all comes back to this feeling of belonging and significance

If your teammates feel like they belong on your team, they will flourish.

If your teammates feel like they are significant to your team, they will thrive.

You can think of it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Your teammate cannot access the highest levels of respect, recognition, strength, and freedom — they cannot become their best selves — until they feel significant to your company and a sense of belong with your team.

maslow-hierachy-of-needs-min.jpg
via Simple Psychology

So what does this mean in practice:

  • Giving each teammate a clear role to play
  • Giving each teammate a clear goal tied to the team’s goal
  • Building in regular moments of public appreciation and encouragement
  • Creating a safe space for diversity and inclusion to thrive

Let’s go back to Adler.

The name “individual” psychology comes from his belief that humans operate best as individual whole beings, not compartmentalized versions of ourselves. In order to feel a sense of belonging and significance, you have to feel like you can be yourself. That you can be whole.

The idea of wholeness is beautiful (I’m a huge fan, in case you couldn’t tell), and it is a key aspect to the Teal movement of organizational behavior. In the book Reinventing Organizations, Teal businesses are defined as having three primary elements: self-managed, evolutionary purpose, and wholeness. Don’t worry, I’ll save my thoughts on self-management for another post. What I’d rather focus on is this concept of wholeness:

Extraordinary things begin to happen when we dare to bring all of who we are to work.

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

And how do you arrive at wholeness?

Wholeness begins with the foundation that Adler identified: belonging and significance.

Focus on those two aspects, and you’ll build the foundation for a thriving team.


The Four Mistaken beliefs and Mistaken Goals of Behavior

The behaviors of our childhood are the behaviors of our work

“You are like a forest fire.” print by Nicole Lavelle at BuyOlympia

One of my life callings is parenting. It is pastime, responsibility, joy, duty, and calling. I love learning about parenting, and coincidentally in the midst of learning about parenting, I also end up learning a fair deal about management.

Not to say that your children work for you!

(Or that your teammates are your children.) 😅

Rather, there are fundamental elements of human psychology that follow us from childhood all the way through adulthood. The adult humans whom you manage at work vary in substantial ways from toddlers — but we’re all still humans, right?

I’ve tried to approach the parenting/management angle cautiously and skeptically. Not everything works apples to apples. But one of the theories that has proven effective is the idea of mistaken goals and behavior. 

Here’s how it goes:

When a person’s behavior is out of sorts, the behavior can be traced to one of four root causes.

  1. Undue Attention
  2. Misguided Power
  3. Revenge
  4. Assumed Inadequacy

We call these root causes the mistaken goals. They’re “mistaken” because they’re based on what the child/teammate believes is true, not necessarily what actually is true.

Each goal comes with a belief.

  1. Attention: “I only belong when I have your attention.”
  2. Power: “I belong only when I’m the boss or at least when I don’t let you boss me.”
  3. Revenge: “I don’t belong, but at least I can hurt back.” 
  4. Inadequacy: “It is impossible to belong. I give up.”

Do you recognize any of these among your team?

The four mistaken goals of behavior

I’ve seen them.

A teammate is constantly striving to do, do, do. They measure their worth by volume of praise and recognition. This teammate feels they only belong when they have the attention of their boss.

A teammate is constantly pushing back against your requests, challenging your ideas, and going rogue on projects. They only feel belonging and significance when they are fully autonomous and free from you.

A teammate is lethargic, morose, and unproductive. They seem entirely disengaged from their work and struggle to make progress in their career. This person feels it is impossible to belong.

(The mistaken goal of revenge is a much less common one to see in the workplace. If one of your direct reports is out for revenge, uh-oh!)

Of course, there are healthy signals that lie within each mistaken goal. It’s normal and healthy to expect a certain amount of recognition for your work. And challenging other’s strategies and ideas is how strategies and ideas improve — and how you avoid HIPPO.

But should these behaviors reach a critical mass or slide too far toward the unhealthy end of the spectrum, it’s time to act.

Here’s what to do in order to address each mistaken behavior and belief. The chart is for parenting, so I’ve translated some ideas below based on how I’ve used this information for people management.

positive-discipline-mistaken-goal-chart

Attention

What they’re saying: “Notice me.” “Involve me.”

What you can do:

  • Redirect by involving the teammate with a task that will earn useful attention from you or the team
  • Use 1:1 time to recall specific moments to celebrate the teammate’s work. Separate these from the immediacy of the project.
  • Engage the teammate in problem-solving and strategic planning.
  • Set up nonverbal signals of appreciation. Emoji replies in Slack. Thumbs-up in Zoom meetings.

Power

What they’re saying: “Let me help.” “Give me choices.”

What you can do:

  • Enable the teammate to do more by asking for their help. Be okay if they say no.
  • Don’t ask the teammate insincere questions. If there’s not really a choice, don’t frame it as one. If you do frame it as a choice, be okay if the answer is no.
  • Don’t fight and don’t give in.
  • Allow your team’s systems and processes to be “the boss.”

Revenge

What they’re saying: “I’m hurting.” “Validate my feelings.”

What you can do:

  • Acknowledge hurt feelings. 💯
  • Don’t take the teammate’s behavior personally. Be empathetic to the beliefs behind the behavior.
  • Tell the teammate what you need. Ask them what they need.

Inadequacy

What they’re saying: “Don’t give up on me.” “Show me a small step.”

What you can do:

  • Break a task down to small steps and achievable goals. Be present without micromanaging.
  • Notice and celebrate successes, big or small.
  • Take time for training. This is especially true for teammates with low TRM.

The concept of mistaken behaviors and beliefs comes from the book Positive Discipline. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book that I’ve reworded to fit with people management.

Every teammate wants to succeed. Every teammate wants to have good relationships with others. Every teammate wants to have a sense of belonging and significance. When we remember this, we will give teammates the benefit of the doubt. Instead of assuming they aren’t up for the task, we will assume they want positive results and are eager to learn how to achieve them.

Ok, I couldn’t help myself. One more quote …

Your teammates are constantly making decisions about themselves and the workplace, and how to find belonging and significance in their workplace. These decisions create a “blueprint” for living. Your actions influence these decisions.

What decisions are your teammates making about themselves and the company?

(Warning, guilt trip incoming!)

And how are you contributing to those decisions?


Belief vs. behavior

Understand the iceberg

Caption goes here

Let’s spend a bit more time on this concept of beliefs and behaviors because it is such a powerful one.

The key: When you observe the way your teammates are acting, what you’re really observing is what your teammates believe — about themselves, about the company, about their team, about you.

Picture an iceberg.

1_yHqX4i_8R13OuqMIotZxjw

Your actions and behavior are like the visible portion of an iceberg floating on the surface. Your underlying beliefs are like the large, invisible portion that is submerged below. You don’t see it. However, it exists just the same, and it impacts you.

via

So when you’re seeing a teammate act defeated and withdrawn, what you’re really seeing is this teammate’s beliefs about themself. They believe they are inadequate.

If a teammate believes that they are only valuable when they are shipping projects, then their behavior could manifest as an “always-on” mentality, cutting corners, lack of quality.

(If you’ve ever had a teammate struggle to unplug at the end of the day, this may be why!)

What’s more is that we humans have a built-in system whereby we cement our beliefs further and further with every observation we make. It’s a fascinating cycle:

  1. We form a belief about ourselves and the world around us
  2. We collect data that supports that belief
  3. We make decisions based on the belief
  4. The decisions lead to outcomes that we observe, interpret, and compound back onto our existing beliefs!

Your beliefs become the filter through which you see your world.

Yikes!

What if your teammate believes they’re inadequate?

What if your teammate believes they matter only when they have your attention?

Their behavior will reflect this belief, and what’s more, their iceberg will get bigger and bigger and bigger below the surface as they continually seek data to support their belief.

The key thing to figure out, then, is: What do your teammates believe?

Ask and listen. Ask about how things are feeling for them in the role or within a project, and listen for the emotions they feel and the phrases they use.

More importantly, how do you feel toward this person? Your response tends to give the biggest clue as to what may be happening beneath the surface. See the mistaken goals chart above for a window into that.


Building cohesive teams

Why the best teams thrive on trust, respect, and affirmation

“You are magic!” tattoo from Tattly

There are many, many qualities that teams bandy about when it comes to “how we work.”

We even have quite a list at Buffer.

Here’s an excerpt from our marketing team wiki.

We want everyone to be fulfilled in their roles.
We hope that each teammate feels inspired, useful, and respected and has been given ample opportunities to grow. (more)
We place equal importance on moonshots and roofshots. (more)
We embrace progress over process. (more)
We celebrate failure. (more)
We learn constantly.
We use goals to learn, not to judge.
We aim to make meaningful progress in reasonable time.

But my favorite one is this:

We desire to be a cohesive team.

And how do you build cohesive teams?

A research roundup done at Lee University found that respect, trust, and affirmation were the most influential factors in healthy relationships.

The emphasis on respect, affirmation, and trust comes from the results of a family assessment model called FACES, which asks a series of questions about cohesiveness and adaptability of one’s relationships. (Sample questions here.)

FACES.png

I’ve heard this exact idea shared before as the way to build a cohesive family, a cohesive group of friends, and yes, even a cohesive workplace.

Dr. Stephen Glenn, a parenting expert, built this concept into his training courses on developing capable young people. Dr. Glenn, who raised four biological children and 20(!) foster children, ties those talks directly back to the research and results of FACES and more.


Q-12 Survey

How to survey a team

Tell Me About It poster by Nathaniel Russell
Poster by Nathaniel Russell

One of my very favorite things to do as a manager is to ask questions. I ask them in 1:1s. I ask them in team surveys. I ask them as often as I can.

Question-asking becomes especially relevant when you do it at scale. Whenever I survey my whole team — which happens at least quarterly, if not monthly — I gain so much insight into how they’re doing collectively and how I’m faring as their manager.

The survey that has been most effective for me is the Q12 survey from Gallup. The folks at Gallup have spent the past 30 years researching great management, and they have condensed those learnings into a fairly straightforward, 12-question, yes/no survey. I first learned about it in the book First, Break All the Rules.

The Gallup Q12 survey measures the strength of the workplace. In the words of Gallup, it measures

 the core elements needed to attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees.

Sounds great, right?

Here are the 12 questions.

The Gallup Q12 Survey

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?
  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
  9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do you have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
  12. In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

Want to give the survey a try? Here’s a free version you can take.

I ask this Q12 survey two times each year, which allows me to have a benchmark for how the team is faring over time. The goal is to get to 100% Yes answers, though I’ve found in practice that 90% Yes is a pretty solid benchmark. People interpret the questions and answers differently, and that pesky “best friend” question seems to always render some differing opinions.

(Speaking of that “best friend” question, there is lots of research that, yes, having a best friend at work really does matter. See: Gallup, Lighthouse, CultureAmp, and Inc.)


Humane reviews

How to hold a performance review that doesn’t suck

Don't Beat Yourself Up boxing glove
“Don’t Beat Yourself Up” boxing glove print by Jason Sturgill at buyolympia.com

As you may have noticed in the Gallup poll above, having regular performance conversations with your team is essential to a strong workplace.

But wait, don’t people usually abhor performance conversations?

Yes! I do, too.

Fortunately, I’ve found that these conversations can look a number of different ways, many of which are not as scary as they normally sound. Here’re a few ideas that I’ve loved incorporating.

First off, I tend to approach performance reviews with the mindset that reviews are, historically, no fun for the person being reviewed. Though the manager’s intention may be “Let’s devote this time to talk about YOU and your career,” the teammate often hears “Let’s spend time talking about me and my WEAKNESSES.”

There is an underlying implication of wrongness to a review.

There is a very clear power dynamic in a review.

We, the manager, have the power. They, our teammates, don’t.

One way to combat this is to reframe “reviews” in one of two ways:

  1. Don’t call them reviews. Call them growth conversations or career convos or goal check-ins. Reviews are for movies and food. Conversations are for people.
  2. Give the power back to the teammate. If you must call them reviews, call them “self reviews” or do 360-degree reviews (where a teammate chooses who reviews them and gets input from a number of different, equal perspectives)

Beyond the naming, there is the problem of what questions to ask or how to conduct the conversation itself. I’ve learned a lot from the book Reinventing Organizations, which features stories from a variety of companies who do things a little different. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Four simple statements

Bob Koski, the founder of Sun Hydraulics, uses these four simple statements for his yearly check-ins with teammates:

  • State an admirable feature about the employee.
  • Ask what contributions they have made to Sun.
  • Ask what contributions they would like to make at Sun.
  • Ask how Sun can help them.

Lauds and learnings

A useful “self-review” format. The teammate answers these questions and leads the conversation by sharing their answers. I also reflect on the questions beforehand and add anything that the teammate might not mention.

  • What has gone really well this year that we might celebrate?
    • What did you learn in the process?
  • What didn’t go as well or might have been done differently?
    • How do we “take stock” of where things are now compared to where we thought they might be?
  • What are you most excited about in this next year? What concerns you most?
  • What changes, if any, would you suggest in your role?
  • When you think about the year ahead, what specific goals will guide you?

How to have a hard conversation

And if the “review” needs to be more of a serious feedback session, here is how I like to think about approaching it. I may not ask these questions specifically, but I do like to prepare with this in mind and steer the conversation so that we address each part.

Step 1: Here is how I feel.

Step 2: Here is what I need.

Step 3: What do you need?


Conclusion

People management can be one of the most rewarding, invigorating, affirming jobs you can ever have. You get to make a difference in people’s lives. What an honor!I’ve been lucky to have learned from some really incredible managers over the years, and my management philosophy is built from the great experiences I’ve had. If I could recap my philosophy in just a few words, it’d be:

  1. Build a sense of belonging and significance for each person on your team

  2. Trust them, respect them, and encourage them regularly

Then get out of their way!

They’re ready to shine. 🤩


Thank you so much for reading!

If you have thoughts about people management, I’d love to hear from you on Twitter. It’d be great to swap stories!