This is the first article in a three-part series, “Unlocking Your Team’s Inner Drive,” from guest writer Tony Anticole, Challenger Advisor and founder and principal of Varna Group LLC.

If your team was scheduled to play against its toughest opponent, how would you expect to win if you knew that nine out of your eleven players didn’t even care if they were on the field?

You might smile at the apparent absurdity of this question, but this is the team most managers field every day. An inconvenient truth is that 87% of employees are unengaged, doing only the bare minimum and ready to leave for a slightly better offer. And before you say, “Other managers might have this problem, but not me,” ask yourself a simple question: If the people on your team didn’t have to work, would they want to work for you?

The good news is that employee engagement is a problem within your control. Managers can change their approach to ensure their own behavior is more likely to tap into their direct reports’ motivators, increasing their team’s engagement and drive.

What are you coaching to?

Coaching is one of the most important tools in any people manager’s toolbox—especially when the manager is just starting out. Effective coaching boosts a direct report’s performance and self-confidence.

Shifting to the role of a coach is not easy. New coaches typically fall short because they think the value of coaching comes from sharing all the wonderful knowledge they’ve learned over their career. However, the power of a great coach doesn’t come from what the coach knows—it comes from the questions the coach asks. As many new coaches will share, this shift from telling to asking can be a lot harder to do in practice than it sounds.

And that’s just how to coach. What about the bigger question of what are we coaching to?

As a people manager, your goal is to get results. (We’ll talk about this more in Part 2.) I’ve heard the job of a people manager described as “getting work done through people.” It naturally follows then that a manager coaches to performance, because the better a direct report performs at their job, the more successful that direct report is, and the more successful the manager is.

But what if we changed the definition of people manager from “getting work done through people” to “motivating people to get work done”? When we reframe the definition of a manager like this, a manager’s focus shifts to finding out how to best motivate their team.

Learning = motivation

So what motivates people? Oftentimes external motivators like carrots (incentives) and sticks (punishments) come to mind. However, Daniel Pink explains that when it comes to jobs that are more conceptual, complex, or creative, external motivators actually decrease performance. Yes, you read that right: People will do a worse job on certain tasks if you use incentives and punishments to motivate them.

Pink instructs us to look to a different source of motivation: intrinsic motivators that are hard-wired into us all. For example, one of these intrinsic motivators is mastery: people have the desire to improve at things they care about. Through the lens of how to motivate a team, learning goals become as important as performance goals for each employee.

What is the right way to think about performance versus learning goals? The graphic below provides a simple way for managers to think about the relationship between these two goals.

The relationship between performance and learning

If a manager has several people on their team doing the same role, the direct reports would share similar performance-related goals. At the same time, each person is different. Managers must look beyond performance and dig deeper into each person’s personal desires by asking questions like: Why are they in their current job? What do they want to do next? What do they aspire to? What goals are meaningful for their personal journey?

This deeper and more personal line of inquiry helps a manager uncover learning goals, as well as those sweet spots where learning goals and performance goals overlap. This critical exploration helps a manager identify topics for coaching that are much more likely to tap into a direct report’s desire for mastery, increasing their personal drive and engagement.

Challenger Selling as a vehicle for mastery

Let’s imagine a manager wants to improve their team’s Commercial Teaching/Challenger Selling approach to help direct reports sound less like salespeople and more like trusted advisors. A conversation using the questions above could uncover a range of aspirations, including:

“I want to be a rock-star seller.” This aspiration is relatively easy, as the employee’s performance and learning goals overlap a lot, as sellers who lead with insight and deliver unique perspective win more often.

“I want to be a sales manager.” Another straightforward one: How can the employee learn the approach well enough to become a powerful coach to help others develop their own skills?

“I am interested in X industry.” It is possible to give this employee more autonomy in what opportunities to prioritize or pursue? Or could they become an expert for the team or business unit for that industry?

“I am interested in another function.” If the function is part of a typical buying group, could this employee become a SME for others to leverage? Or could they become your team’s partner to that function within your own company?

“I want to start my own business.” Most business owners will tell you the ability to deliver a compelling business case for change is essential. Could this employee participate with insight development to get a crash course in customer understanding to identify key outcomes and pain points?

Knowledge of the intrinsic motivator of mastery combined with a deeper understanding of your direct report’s aspirations will elevate your coaching to impact both performance and motivation, leading to higher levels of engagement.


Tony Anticole

Tony Anticole

Tony Anticole, Challenger Advisor and founder and principal of Varna Group LLC, helps companies increase engagement and innovation through management approaches that directly tap into people’s intrinsic motivators.