Driving High Performance by Understanding Motivations

Make feedback a winning habit on your team.

Written By

Picture of Lauren Humphrey

Lauren Humphrey

Co-founder of Tandem

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Understanding a direct report’s motivations puts managers in the fast lane to driving high performance. It gets the manager to the heart of what makes their direct report tick. When a manager aligns how they engage direct reports with their motivations, the result is a high performance team. Motivations can seem like an opaque or ambiguous concept; however, there are tried and true tactics to define them. One of the best ways HR can support managers is by equipping them with these tactics to best understand their people’s motivations.

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Why motivations matter 

Motivations are the driving force behind why people do what they do. Do people ever do things that go against their motivations? Yes, all the time. But people’s best and most fierce work happens when it is aligned with their motivations. Each of us works for different reasons so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing each individual. However, if a manager can dig in and understand the unique motivations of their individuals, they can unlock that best work. 

Examples things that motivate people at work

  • Money 
  • Equity 
  • Autonomy
  • Learning new things 
  • Helping others
  • Free snacks

The Motivation Map 

One tool that can help managers to really understand their direct reports and their motivations is the Motivation Map. The map helps people introspect on what is really most important to them and how that translates into their work motivations. It also helps managers understand how important each motivation is to their direct report. For example, autonomy and free snacks may both motivate an employee. But understanding that autonomy is significantly more important than snacks will help the manager lean into actions like giving the person ownership of projects rather than buying them new snacks every week to keep them engaged. 

Try the Motivation Map!


Motivations don’t align to current role 

Sometimes managers shy away from really understanding their direct report’s motivations because they may not align to the role the individual is in. And maybe the person is a top performer who the manager doesn’t want to lose. One thing that can be helpful for managers to understand is that these motivations exist whether or not the manager knows about them. So it is better to ask the questions, do the introspection and be able to align work to motivations where possible. It is possible managers will find out that direct reports are not aligned with the work in the current role. With this information, at least the manager can have conversations to engage their direct report, set them up for success while they are in the role and have discussions about what the future can look like together. If managers shy away from these conversations, they will likely be blindsided when the employee chooses a new path. 

Motivations are outside manager’s control 

Managers may find out that what motivates their employee is outside the managers control, like money or equity. Managers aren’t always in control of these factors. Similar to the issue above, these motivations exist whether or not the manager asks and knows about them. Once the manager understands these motivations, they can outline what they can and cannot do for their direct report. For example if an employee is heavily motivated by money, the manager can tell their direct report that they will advocate for their compensation in rooms the direct report is not in and tell them that they do not have direct control over the budget or timing of raises. Letting the direct report know where the manager can and cannot support brings clarity to everyone. 

Putting it all together 

Once a manager understands the motivations of their direct report, it is important to then align actions to that understanding. For example, if a manager finds out that helping others motivates an employee, the manager should align work to situations where the individual can mentor or support another teammate. If, instead, the manager continues to put that direct report on solo projects, they should understand that it is against the direct reports motivations and may not result in their best work or engagement. This isn’t to say that every action a manager takes can align perfectly with motivations. It is to say that when and where managers can align work and motivations, they will see the best and strongest work from their team.