The Next, Next Big Challenge

In my past few columns, I have written about the challenges transportation directors are likely to face over the next 12 to 18 months. These included continuing to respond to the pandemic through the 2021 school year, and the emerging budget challenges that districts will begin having to address. Add the fact that it is dark for most of the day to that list of miseries, and it can be tough to get yourself going on any given day. One of the most important and difficult challenges for managers over the next several months will be figuring out how to motivate your employees.

As a manager and leader, figuring out how to get a group of individuals to work toward a common goal is the most important and difficult task you must accomplish. Do you remember getting yelled at by a coach, or drill sergeant, or your parents? Do you remember doing something just because you knew it would make you feel better? In both instances, motivating you to do something was the goal if not the outcome. Understanding how to motivate your employees will be at least, if not more, important than being knowledgeable about how to design a routing system.

The problem with motivation is that it is something that everyone talks about, but nobody is ever clear about what they mean. If we do not define motivation, how will we know if we are doing it right? For our purposes, “motivation” will be defined as the social, emotional, and biological processes that cause individuals to do the things they do. While this may seem needlessly academic, it helps demonstrate that actually motivating people is a multi-dimensional process which requires a consideration of the person, the situation, and the methods.

The science and research of motivation focuses on the interaction of theories and types. While the theories are clearly important (remember Maslow’s triangle!), managers will more often focus on the types of motivation. There are two key types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you find it rewarding and fulfilling and choose to act without a reward. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something because you want to earn a reward or avoid punishment. As a manager you will need to use both types of motivation to help your staff through what will remain difficult times.

One of the most frequent failures of motivation is that it is reactive rather than proactive. The quote is almost standardized: “Morale seems low. We need to motivate the staff.” Often the response is donuts or a lunch or an award ceremony. Those are all great things and can be very effective, but COVID has put a halt to those methods for at least a little while longer. Additionally, these tactics only address the extrinsic factors for motivation. Finally, managers must ask whether repeatedly using the same techniques will cause them to lose their effectiveness over time. The significant near-term challenges that transportation operations will face necessitate a more proactive and nuanced approach to motivation.

Being proactive will require you to increasingly focus on identifying the intrinsic motivators for staff. Intrinsic motivators, while not necessarily better than extrinsic motivators, are certainly cheaper to implement and are likely more sustaining.

Two immediate considerations should be focusing the organization and connecting daily activities to the mission. Focusing an organization on a specific mission allows people understand the reason they should and need to come to work every day. Establishing a through line that connects the activities of today to outcomes of tomorrow – and the tomorrows after that – can be a great place to start building opportunities for intrinsic motivation of staff.

Motivating staff will be the leadership challenge for transportation mangers during the transition from COVID-dominated activities. Preparing yourself and your organization to work through the remaining dark days and budget challenges will require a focus on what drives employees to do the work necessary to support students. This will require managers to plan for alternatives to the traditional gatherings like lunches that served as key external motivators. Inevitably, and maybe serendipitously, this will mean finding a way to better connect our staff to the purpose of our organization and begin capitalizing more on intrinsic motivators. No other effort we undertake will be more consequential or more difficult, but it is a challenge the industry, its associations, and its partners are poised to meet.

Let’s get started!


Tim Ammon (tammon@decisionsupportgroup.com) is a co-founder of Decision Support Group. He has been providing consulting services to public and private sector clients for nearly 25 years. His special focus has been assisting organizations with issue identification and designing improvement strategies. Visit www.decisionsupportgroup.com for more information.

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