Skip to Main Content

Debunking the myths of employee motivations

An interview with David McClements about understanding what employees truly want and why managers—and businesses— should care

Cecilia Tran leads communications and public relations at Long Dash. She previously founded a content strategy consultancy for mission-driven companies.

David McClements

David McClements is the founder of MacLemons International, an organizational development training company that provides managerial training to major tech, consumer goods, and media brands across the world. After participating in McClement’s training course with fellow Long Dash teammates, Cecilia Tran interviewed McClements about the often overlooked value of training managers to manage. They discuss managing people in a remote environment, “The Great Resignation,” and what it means to bring brand values into the employee experience. 

McClements began his career at Procter & Gamble in sales where he attended mandatory management training as a part of their promote-from-within ethos. The training impressed upon him the profound  difference that managerial training can make to a business and employee. In 1999 he set out to start his own training business to help companies invest in their talent and help managers make work more meaningful for their teams. 

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity. 

Cecilia Tran: Thanks for joining me today, David. You said something really interesting when we took the training, which was that people can excel in their career and do great things and still be a terrible or indifferent manager. I’d love to hear more about that.

David McClements: There are very senior people who are brilliant at managing up, but not managing down—simply because you’re often judged on your ability to manage up and not down.

As an example, organizations often reward managers who fall into the “super hero archetype.” This is the person who is running around with their hair on fire all the time to fix problems and save the day. To leadership, it looks like the person is really committed— that’s happening at the expense of those underneath. These problems come up in the first place because the people they’re managing aren’t given the tools, instruction, feedback and support to resolve issues until they come to a head in a big way. Yet, because this style is modeled as the way to get ahead, people start to mimic that as they move up.

I’ve worked with 100 different companies in 14 different countries in the world, and it’s scary how much this happens.

Cecilia Tran: With all this coverage about the Great Resignation, do you see that businesses are getting any smarter on the need for people-focused managerial training and leadership development training?

David McClements: No.

Cecilia Tran: Really? Tell me more.

David McClements: Really. If the value of proper training was understood, then properly training your managers would be done in every single company. I speak in my training about the goose and the golden egg and how everybody measures eggs—egg quantity and egg quality. I think what needed to happen the last two years was more conversations about the goose. How was the goose dealing with the challenges of working from home in a pandemic? How was their mental health? I don’t think that happened enough or else there would be more attention to supporting managers to support their employees. People were often trying to prove they were being good workers at their own expense.

Cecilia Tran: At Long Dash, we often think about how companies rarely emphasize the employee experience while being hyper-focused on external audience communication. The result is that employees see how the stated values don’t match their employers’ actions towards them. Ultimately, disgruntled employees will manage those direct touch points with customers and the brand authenticity and experience suffers. How do you make the business case that it’s worth it to invest in this type of training?

David McClements: Okay, so there’s loads on that. First of all, there’s a fundamental problem in the training industry itself. The problem is that most of it is awful. And it’s not just bad, it’s really bad. But once you can establish what training content is good, then you can demonstrate its monetary value.

There was a company a number of years ago that decided to do my training with all of their managers. This was a massive investment. After two years, HR ran the numbers on how many fewer resignations they had had and the amount of money saved on recruiting, hiring, and training new people. The CFO reviewed the numbers and said, “This makes us money.”

If the training has results, it’s not an expense. It saves you money in time, anguish, resignations, paying people to leave, hiring new people, and training new people. Managing well is a game changer. People will stay in that company to work with good bosses and others will leave companies to go with those bosses too. 

Cecilia Tran: In our recent “Attitudes before Age” study on workplace motivation and ambassadorship, we saw how often employers get employees’ motivations wrong. They often appeal to generational tropes instead of looking at employee mindsets more strategically. What are some common pitfalls you see when it comes to managers assessing motivations incorrectly? 

David McClements: I teach three myths of motivation. 3 ways companies naturally think will solve motivational issues. The first myth is that by inventing and giving new job titles all the time, people will be happy. For smaller companies with flat structures, it’s often the case that people think: “Well, unless my manager has an unfortunate stairs accident, I’m not going anywhere and it’s going to take me years.” The problem is that companies then invent levels and titles. They create a tall structure that ultimately frustrates people who see they have to be promoted 16 times to gain the responsibility and raise they actually wanted.

So, monkeying around with structures and titles can actually be demotivating. I mean, it just becomes comical—“Junior Deputy to the Assistant to the Vice President”—everyone can see through it.

The second myth is promotion. Not everybody wants it. There are so many people that you could ask and say, “Do you want your boss’ job?” And they go, “Not in a month of Sundays would I want their job.” Do people want more money? Potentially. But do they all want to be promoted? Not always. In fact, if someone is happy in their role it’s actually beneficial to the organization to keep them there and show appreciation in other forms. 

Now let’s talk about money as a motivation. Yes, most people want it but let me ask you something. I’m going to offer you a deal. Whatever you are earning right now, we’ll double it if you return to the worst job you’ve ever had. Would you do it? 

Cecilia Tran: No way.

David McClements: That’s absolutely right. In fact, there’s research that shows that when somebody threatens to leave and the company gives them a counteroffer and they stay, 50 percent of people who get counter-offered will still leave within 12 months. It’s not about money and job title and monkeying about with your structure. They have their place, but those aren’t the remedy. 

Cecilia Tran: So what is? 

David McClements: The key is addressing the few questions that every worker is wondering:

  • How well am I managed? 
  • Do I understand what my role is? 
  • Am I allowed to do it?
  • Have I been given the tools to do it?
  • Then, how can I progress?

There was a hotel chain I stayed at that really lived their value, which was “Whatever makes the customer happy.” They empowered the person cleaning the room to make decisions about what to do to make the customer happy.

My TV wasn’t working so I phoned down to the concierge. I thought it was a joke because within 90 seconds there was somebody at my door. It felt like I just put the phone down and the next thing, there’s somebody at the door and they’re like, “We’re here. Here’s a DVD player and a stack of DVDs you can watch while we sort this out.” And then they said, “Sir, we can’t fix this. Let’s change your room.” And I said, “Okay.” And they said, “Don’t worry about anything, we’re going to move everything.” 

If you say as a company you have “values” which are important to you, then you must measure those values. So if you say, creativity is one of our values, you have to then measure creativity and create models for how to be creative. If you say, “Integrity is one of our values,” you have to measure it and show people what integrity looks like and what it doesn’t look like. But what happens most of the time is, we measure your performance on other metrics, but we expect you to hold these values that we never talk about.

P&G had a very strong value system which set me up for the rest of my career. They had values and then in practice would stop something to say, “No, we don’t do business like that. That’s just not what we do here. Other people are doing it, but we don’t do business like that.” And this intrinsic value thing got into your soul, it was all around you. “We don’t bully and we don’t use power negotiation, it’s not the way we work. These are our values.” It’s not plastered on a wall.

You feel it. 

Cecilia Tran: Is there any last thing you’d like to include or share that I didn’t ask?

David McClements: Just a quote: “Great managers are very hard to find, difficult to replace, and impossible to forget.” They are like teachers. Kids don’t choose topics, they choose teachers. It’s the same as management. Whoever you may be in that management world, the impact that you can have on someone’s life is profound, and therefore getting help to do that well is the best investment because it’s the most transferable skill there is.

Cecilia Tran: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much, David.

David McClements: You’re very welcome.

Suggested reading