Motivation – Part 1: Being Available

May 1, 2007

Being Available
Or, how I learned to get up off my ass and walk around a lot

As I said up front, motivation has a lot to do with transferring your enthusiasm to your employees. But in order to do this effectively you have to be genuine about it. If you aren’t feeling it, you’ll end up doing more harm than good. Employees only need a few “fake” ra ra sessions to start seeing everything you do in that light. So the best thing to do if you aren’t feeling the enthusiasm is to do nothing. Doing nothing is much better than doing something in this case because that something is likely to cause damage that is very difficult to undo.

On the other hand, when you really are feeling it, you want to share it right then and there. When an employee has done great work, praise that work immediately. When the company just landed an awesome new opportunity, tell everyone right then and there.

I’ve always felt that transferring your enthusiasm is much more effective when done in a casual and spontaneous way. When employees see you being enthusiastic in non-orchestrated settings, it comes across as much more genuine. This is why I says be available – walk around a lot – maximize your in person time with your employees. The more time you have with them, the more opportunities you will have to communicate new ideas, be exposed to their great work, and generally check in on how they are doing.

This is such a small and easy thing it’s amazing to me how many people don’t do it. They think that managing people is sitting at their desk, reviewing reports, answering emails, and conducting one on ones. Why should you have to wait two weeks to have your appointed one on one when you can walk over to their desk and do it right now?

A few words on employee praise. Employees want to feel good about the work they are doing. When they feel like they are doing great work, they want to be recognized for that. However, many employees aren’t necessarily into the whole self-promotion thing and thus feel somewhat uncomfortable tooting their own horn. By walking around a lot and being generally available you put yourself in a position to see their great work first hand.

The most effective praise is tied directly to an individual accomplishment. Being able to walk up to someone and say “hey – what you’re doing right now is great” is so much more effective than a disconnected “you’re doing a great job here” comment. I think this is partially because the latter doesn’t really have any insight into what the employee is doing. It fosters comments and thoughts like “he doesn’t really know what I do” or “she has no idea how challenging this is”. When you praise an employee immediately for a specific accomplishment you have witnessed, it tells the employee you know exactly what they’re doing, have seen the great work, and think it’s great. It’s a much more genuine form of praise. And being genuine is what it’s all about.

Another extremely valuable insight you gain from walking around and being available is the pulse of the organization. Are people heads down working with little or no communication? Not necessarily a healthy organization. Are they whispering in groups? Lookout for turnover. Are they happy and joking around but generally focused? Hooray for you! This is the kind of insight that is impossible to discern from reports, company meetings, etc. These insights require your intuition as a manager who knows his or her organization and knows when it’s running smooth on all 8 cylinders.

There is some risk here and you need to be aware of it. Employees should not see your presence as a signal to get back to work. “Uh oh, here comes the boss. If he sees us talking he’s gonna be pissed!” To a certain extent there will always be an element of that – it’s inevitable. But there are some things you can do to minimize this.

  1. Don’t publicly call people out when you see behavior you think should be addressed. Of course if you see something that is clearly wrong or unethical you must address it immediately. But for minor things like surfing the web, joking around the water cooler with colleagues, etc, let it slide. If you pick up a pattern and think it needs to be addressed, talk to people in private later. It is important to disassociate any criticism from your presence in the office. It is also important to avoid giving employees who are performing well the impression that they’re in the same boat with the slackers.
  2. Join in the conversation. Not all manager/employee conversation needs to be about work. If you join in a non-work related conversation, or better yet initiate one yourself, you come off as non-threatening.

Two quick pointes about item number two above. Like everything else we’ve talked about you must be genuine. Don’t try to be something you’re not. If you try and join in on a conversation that you have absolutely no background in, you’re going to come across phony. We’ve all seen The Office and it’s painful. You don’t want to be Steve Carrell in your own office. This can be tough when there is a significant age difference between you and your employees (oh please no stories about how it was in your day).

The second point is this. Keep it short and sweet. This is both for your sake and your employees. On your hand, you don’t want to foster a culture that regularly takes one hour digressions into the geo-political state of various 3rd world countries and the parallels between that and modern capitalist trends that will eventually result in our ultimate and utter demise.

And for your employees, remember that you are still their manager and to a certain extent they will feel compelled to participate with you in these discussions. They will feel obligated to laugh at your jokes, agree with your opinions, and continue the conversation until you indicate that it’s finished. From their point of view, there’s nothing worse than to have what used to be an interesting conversation crushed by some old guy who doesn’t “get it”, and then have that drag on for 20 agonizing minutes of hell. So like many things, this is a balancing act. Participate enough so as to be non-threatening, but don’t go overboard.

The funny thing about this is that too little of this will make people get back to work when they see you coming because they think you don’t want them socializing. Too much will have the same effect but because they want to avoid a 30 minute conversation about something they don’t care about :).

So in summary, making yourself regularly and informally available to your employees is an extremely powerful tool for motivation. By maximizing your face time with your employees you ensure that you will have as many opportunities as possible to genuinely transfer your own enthusiasm. You put yourself in a position to regularly and naturally praise them for their accomplishments, and you gain valuable insights into the overall temperament of your organization.

And all of this can be achieved by simply getting up off your ass, putting away those damn reports, and walking around saying “how’s it going?”

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6 Responses to “Motivation – Part 1: Being Available”

  1. Fred Says:

    Good points. The title ‘Being Available’ reminded me of something else. Lots of people, especially developers, are in the biz because of flow, They want (even need) long blocks of undisturbed time. Once a person has team responsibility, one really needs to truthfully be available more or less on demand. There’s a tendency towards not listening, brushing off, getting back to what you were doing, etc, that just naturally occurs when flow is broken. However, it’s very de-motivating when someone with that kind of responsibility can’t take time just to hear you out.

  2. SergiuTruta Says:

    There are managers who go by their team members desks very often and I don’t recommend this for several reasons: first, many interruptions affect the productivity; second, team members might feel inconfortable if they are asked on an hourly basis about their progress; so I’d say that the communication between the managers and the team members is ok as long as it doesn’t become too agressive.

    Check my article about how should managers create the right environment inside a company, here.

    Also, I don’t agree that people in a team (at 1) above) shold be treated differently according to their performance. This will break the team. Instead, a manager has to make sure that the team is well glued. In rest, you’ve mentioned some good points here. I’m courious about your coming parts on motivation ;).

  3. SergiuTruta Says:

    There are managers who go by their team members desks very often and I don’t recommend this for several reasons: first, many interruptions affect the productivity; second, team members might feel uncomfortable if they are asked on an hourly basis about their progress; so I’d say that the communication between the managers and the team members is ok as long as it doesn’t become too aggressive.

    Check my article about how should managers create the right environment inside a company, here.

    Also, I don’t agree that people in a team (at 1) above) should be treated differently according to their performance. This will break the team. Instead, a manager has to make sure that the team is well glued. In rest, you’ve mentioned some good points here. I’m curious about your coming parts on motivation ;).

  4. Anders Says:

    Have to agree a bit with Sergiu here. You do sound a bit old school and I’m not sure I’d really be comfortable with the kind of management you describe.

  5. ambour001 Says:

    My man is a manager at KPMG, and I made him read this before he left this morning. He loved it. He didn’t want to leave without reading it so I read it aloud while he got ready. 🙂 Finish the rest for us!


  6. You’ll spend less time cooking, and if you ever face an empty fridge – you’ll have your ready meals ready to save the day.
    Since then, I’ve dieted and exercised and over-dieted and over-exercised. Try to spend a few hours at the start of every week by cooking large food batches to minimize the amount of time you spend on cooking for the whole week.


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