4 rules for motivating your team members

When managing teams in China, it’s easy to think about managing the team as a whole while forgetting that you’re also managing individuals. This is of course true anywhere, but it’s especially easy for foreigner managers working abroad to think they only need to manage the group.

It can be helpful to compare managing teams in your home country to managing a team in China. Understanding the general differences in motivations and expectations help guide how you talk to the group when explaining initiatives, defining expectations, and generally building the team’s culture.

But when I first moved back to China three years ago I fell into the trap of only managing the group, forgetting that I was actually working with individuals, each with unique motivations. I’ve also seen other foreigners managing Chinese teams fall into the trap of thinking only of the group as a whole, rather than also thinking of the group as a collection of individuals.

It’s time to start managing both the group and the individuals.

When group and individual motivations diverge

A common stereotype is that Chinese staff care mostly – or even only – about cash. You can think of this as the “show me the money” stereotype. (Did you picture Tom Cruise or Cuba Gooding, Jr. there? Yeah, sorry about that.) Indeed, when I talk with my team members about motivations at the group level, they often say something like “Chinese really only care about salary.”

If I were only focused on managing the group, rather than the individuals, all of my HR conversations would be about cash. Actually, for a long time that was the primary focus of my discussions.

But then I realized that I’m lucky to have an amazing team of entrepreneurial spirits who are motivated by exciting work. They constantly push themselves, each other, and me to learn new things and we work together as a team to solve unique and exciting problems.

I suddenly realized that although they were collectively motivated by salaries, they each had deeper and unique motivations. That’s when I started really listening – not just thinking of them as “a Chinese staff member”, rather considering each person as an individual.

It was through these individual, deeper, and honest discussions that they each started trusting me more. They also started sharing their real motivations, which has allowed me to understand their personal and professional goals better so I can try to align those with our goals for the team as a whole.

Rules of engagement

It’s easy enough to say you should have “real” conversations, but sometimes that’s not the easiest thing to do. You are, in fact, asking people to bare their souls to you.

Ok sure, we’re not quite taking it that far – this isn’t therapy. But here are a few things to keep in mind so you can slowly build these relationships and a deeper level of trust.

1. Take your time

The most important thing is to take it slow. Don’t expect each team member to suddenly and directly tell you all of their motivations. You need to earn their trust, so don’t get too frustrated if that takes some time. Especially in China I find that it takes time for team members to get comfortable sharing with the “foreign boss”. But spending time building trust is well worth it.

2. Ask, don’t tell

It sounds obvious, but you can’t understand someone’s motivations without asking them questions. Try to get them talking with questions like: “What do you want to be doing in 3 years?”, “How does your current work align with your long-term personal and professional goals?”, and “What type of work would make you really excited to get up every morning?”

3. Touch base frequently

Rather than having one marathon conversation a year, touch base with each team member frequently to ask how things are going. People’s motivations change over time, and, of course, life happens, so you need to keep tabs on the individuals so you can keep motivating them. Aim for quarterly discussions with each team member. Even better, set up recurring calendar entries so you don’t forget to have those conversations.

4. Don’t talk about current work

When you’re having these discussions about their motivations, don’t talk about current work they are doing. This is a time to focus on longer-term issues. If you start talking about current work the discussion will be too tactical and you’ll make it harder for them to open up about their longer-term interests.

What’s the tradeoff?

Of course, I’m not saying you should never address the group as a whole. You need to engage both the individuals and the group as you build and maintain your team culture. This is especially true for start-ups – you need to work hard early to make sure the team culture fits your vision by representing that both to the group and the individuals, and constantly reinforcing it.

The tradeoff in managing the individuals and not just the group is that it takes more time. You can’t just spend 20 minutes each quarter explaining your goals to the group and leave it at that. But really, did that ever work well for you anyway?

Although it takes more time, I truly enjoy getting to know each of my team members and trying to help them align their professional goals with my goals for the team as a whole. Those personal relationships are what motivate me, so maybe that helps make this easier for me than taking the less time-consuming approach of just motivating the group as a whole.

Try engaging the individuals on your team in deep discussion about their motivations and see if it helps you motivate both the team as a whole, and these individuals while you get to know them better. You might even find you are more motivated after you discover, as I have, there are amazing people all around you. Drop me a line and let me know how it goes.

Have you found other ways to motivate the team beyond large group and individual discussions? Have individual discussions backfired on you? Leave your comments below so we can keep the conversation going.

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  • Greg Nance

    Solid piece, Sameer! Totally agree on the importance of learning about each contributor’s motivations and then structuring work assignments for win/win outcomes. We’re getting more intentional on implementing this at ChaseFuture.


  • http://startingupinchina.com/ Sameer Karim

    Thanks Greg! You guys are definitely doing things right at ChaseFuture — the energy in the office is a testament to strong group and individual alignment.