Don’t Hire a Manager Who Can’t Answer This Question

It's not motivators that you most need to identify when interviewing prospective people managers.

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Aug 14, 2023

There are cases, albeit rare, where companies can be forgiven for hiring a people manager that has zero connection to, and interest in, the people on their team. If a manager just invented a groundbreaking AI or cured a previously incurable disease, most companies will make the hire even if that manager doesn’t care about their employees’ motivators and demotivators.

But for the rest of us, managing people requires understanding what drives the employees on our team. When a high performer quits, for example, it’s not out of the blue; there are always hints and warning signs long before they submit their resignation. The difference between good and mediocre managers is that the good ones know their employees well enough to understand the mounting demotivation.

It’s not easy to know precisely what motivates and demotivates employees; it requires a depth of conversation and insight for which many managers have been ill-prepared. One study asked managers to rate their skills at motivating and retaining high performers, and only half of leaders rated themselves as advanced or expert.

How can you identify whether a candidate for at management role does (or doesn’t) have the requisite skills? Ask them a simple question about their previous management job: “Give me some examples of what demotivated the high performers on your team.”

Why are we asking about demotivators rather than motivators?

It takes a lot more effort and trust to discover someone’s demotivators. Anyone can tell their boss, “I get really excited when…” or “That makes me happy.” But it takes trust and psychological safety to say to a boss, “I feel really frustrated and disengaged when this happens…” A manager who earned their employees’ trust such that they shared their frustrations is, more often than not, a manager pretty adept at building relationships with their people.

Of course, some leaders are more naturally adept at this than others. Of the four major leadership styles, two — Idealists and Diplomats — are more innately inclined to build these types of relationships. Idealists are high-energy achievers who believe in the positive potential of everyone around them, while Diplomats are the affiliative force that keeps groups together and typically build deep personal bonds with their employees.

But even though data from a leadership styles test shows that those two leadership styles could describe nearly two-thirds of leaders, it takes more than a natural predisposition to develop relationships such that employees share their demotivators. It takes skill, practice, and intention, and that’s why you want to know if your management candidates reached that level with their employees.

When managers can detail the specific motivators experienced by their high performers, it’s a safe bet that they invested the necessary time and built sufficient trust with their team.

You’ll quickly discover if your management candidates have a deep understanding of the people on their team or if you’re just hearing stock and vague fluff. In the Leadership IQ study,” Words That Cost You the Interview,” low-performing candidates used 40% more adverbs in their answers (e.g., very, really, quickly) than high-performing candidates. And poorly-rated candidates used 103% more absolute language (e.g., words like always, never, unquestionably.

In other words, the best candidates give highly-detailed, specific answers, while lower-performing ones tend to give interview responses riddled with ambiguous and non-specific language, including an over-reliance on adverbs and a lack of concrete details.

Finally, do not ask candidates how they fixed those demotivators. A report on behavioral interview questions revealed that around 80% of hiring managers add words to the end of their interview questions (e.g., “and how did you fix that?”) that essentially give away the correct answer. Your best candidates will both tell you what demotivated their people and then, without prompting, share how they solved (or at least attempted to solve) those issues.

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