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Understanding the humans in your organization

One of the most important things to understand in management is that what people say about their motivation is only half true. They say they want success for the team or project or organization…and it’s true they do want that. However, what they won’t say is that they also have a strong personal agenda, and that agenda will affect much of their behaviour.

A good rule of thumb is that no project will move forward unless it satisfies the need for it to be both good for the group and good for the individual.

Understanding specific motives

There are general categories of individual motives such as getting a bonus, earning a promotion, gaining prestige, and so on. However, the trick to dealing with humans is to figure out the specific thing that is top of mind for them. For example, a manager might care about the overall success of a project, however, what is top of mind is hitting a particular milestone, or at least appearing to hit it, because they will be making a presentation to leadership in a couple of weeks and they know it will look bad if they have missed the milestone.

In HR we run into this kind of thing all the time where a manager genuinely does want to treat their staff well but the immediate pressure to achieve some result overrides that other motive. They may think, “I’ll make it up to the staff next month, but right now I have to drive them to the edge of burnout.”

Other motives might include spending the budget before year-end so they don’t lose it, getting a chance to work on a cool project, being sent to a conference in a desirable location, and not having to be on a project led by someone they dislike.

Assuming we stay away from inappropriate motives, we can still get much more buy-in for our projects if we understand the specific motives of each stakeholder at that point in time.

How to learn people’s specific motives

You can go a long way in learning people’s motives just by asking them. Ask, “What is top of mind for you these days? What are your main concerns?” You can also learn a lot by paying attention to their reaction to ideas as they are floated about. If they perk up when you mention that the project could involve travel then you have a clue that the opportunity to visit some nice places might be a big motivator. You can also ask people who know them well about what they think is on the person’s mind or what they would really like. You might get an answer like “Well I think…ha, ha…that they like to be on any team that isn’t led by Joe.ha, ha!”  It’s spoken as if it’s a joke but it may tell you all you need to know to ensure you can get the manager's buy-in.

Back to balance

Don’t let your focus on individual motives distract you from the need to ensure the project meets group needs as well. In fact, you rarely talk about individual motives as such, you talk about how the project benefits the group, and in an explanation of the details individuals can see that it will also align with their personal needs.

The trick for young professionals is to recognize that what people say is only half the picture. It’s also not wrong to try to design a project so that it’s a win for the individuals as well as for the organization. We are dealing with humans after all, so let’s recognize the complex range of spoken and hidden motives, and act accordingly.



David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He has a particular interest in helping HR develop the capability to handle AI issues. If that’s a concern, then get in touch. You can connect to Mr. Creelman on LinkedIn or email him at



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