“Tony is wonderful!” This is a standing joke between my husband and me. Whenever he sees me writing in my journal, he proclaims loudly, “Tony is wonderful,” inviting me to memorialize this in my journal. While this is just a cute exchange between the two of us, it got me thinking about motivation.

As organizations struggle with the decision of how to work — returning to the office; hybrid; remaining remote — as well as how to hire and retain employees amidst the “great resignation,” an important consideration is to understand how each employee, as an individual, is motivated. This means stepping outside of yourself, outside of what motivates you, and discovering what motivates those you work with. Not taking the time to do this could unintentionally lead to de-motivating the employees you’re trying to keep. Let me share two examples to illustrate the potential impact.

You promote your top-performing individual contributor into a supervisory role. You see this as a natural career progression. However, your employee loves being the “expert,” the go-to person for complex problems. They see this supervisory role as distracting them from the real work. They have no desire to be responsible for the performance of others.

You recognize your head of sales at the company’s all-employee annual meeting for their team’s fantastic performance. You see this public acknowledgment as an appropriate way to demonstrate your support for this person, by proclaiming it in front of the entire company. The head of sales, however, is a private person who would have much preferred a handwritten written note and, perhaps, a gift to their favorite restaurant (a demonstration of how well you know them).

As you can see from the examples above, assuming what will motivate your employees — either because it is what motivates you, or because it is what the organization has established as ways to recognize performance — can backfire. Rather, it’s important to recognize your employees in a way that is meaningful to them.

How well do you know what motivates your employees?