How to Motivate in Diverse Work Environments

Dr. MaryJo Burchard works in the East Coast office of MasterMinds Leadership to help leaders clarify and focus on what's most important to them, optimizing their personal and professional effectiveness through data-driven coaching and training. “The greatest gift we can give to others is genuine care and connection,” said Burchard. As an integral part of the MasterMinds Leadership team, she continues to develop resources to help people map out their contribution and needs in times of upheaval, change, and crisis.

In the fourth and final part of the Dr. Burchard Interview Series, MaryJo discusses how to motivate a diverse work environment.

In Part 3 of the Dr. Burchard Interview Series, MaryJo talked about how organizational culture defines employee engagement, and you can read that article here.

Part 2 discussed the process of change readiness, as an individual and as an organization, and you can read that article here.

Part 1 focused on her background and her holistic human perspective in her work, and you can read that article here.



Q: We’ve been talking about things like play, fun, and motivation that cut across all different kinds of people, but sometimes in leadership and organizations, there is a sense that certain groups or types of people need to be treated differently. You can’t manage those kinds of people the same way you can manage these kinds of people. I wanted to ask you about that.

When you were in Municipal Government, you worked with teams in a very diverse work environment: white collar, blue collar, a range of educational levels, whatever label we want to put on different working environments. Is there any common ground between these groups? What have you observed that could help leaders succeed in credibly leading all groups and types of people when moving between these different contexts?

Dr. Burchard: While every group has nuanced values and norms, there’s still common ground. To find that common ground, the most important place to start is to truly value every person and each distinct group. Treat people as experts in their field. The blue-collared person is an expert in his field. He (or she) knows more about what he does more than you will ever know because he is on the front lines. There are significant insights you can get from people when you start with the assumption – and they can feel you are starting with the assumption – that they are experts in their field, and that they contribute something of significant value in their unique context. When you start there, it makes room for insights that would never come to the surface otherwise.

I will give you an example. I was in a room with a bunch of people from all different backgrounds: librarians, waste management, accountants, parks and recreation. To break the ice, I asked them each to share what their job was and what they love most about their job. The first guy who shared said, “I’m so and so, and I work in the sewers.” I was thinking, “Oh, man, I should not have asked that question. I’m a jerk. What is he going to be able to share? That’s terrible, that’s not fair.”

But I was blown away by his response. He said, “When I started working in the sewers, I had lived in this city my whole life, and I had never seen anything more than my neighborhood. When I got this job, it opened up my whole world. I started getting out and seeing all these places that I had never seen before that were in my own backyard. Forests and parks. Big city buildings. The aquarium, all the beaches. Beautiful places. And I started expanding my appreciation for the world around me. I started getting curious and I never would’ve stretched myself if I had never started working in the sewers.”

It was a mic drop moment. This guy had so many insights about teamwork and finding inspiration and purpose in the things you do. I would have missed it if I had just kept my assumption that somebody that works in the sewer clearly must hate their job and must be in it for the paycheck.

I’ll give you another example. I was talking to somebody about vision at work and they told me that if I really wanted to see vision in a diverse work environment that I should go to the recycling plant. I said, really?? They said that they had never been more inspired than when they visited the recycling plant here in the city of Virginia Beach.

You go and ask those people what is it that they do for a living, and they are not going to tell you they collect trash. They are going to tell you that they save the world. If they were not doing their job, then the world would be drowning in garbage in short order, and what they are doing is promoting the sustainability of the world for future generations. And they will tell you that they are inspired by their own work.

When we start with the assumption that every job has significant meaningful contribution, and that it is possible for people to have the appreciation and sense of mission for their work if we pour it into them, regardless of where they are on the food chain in the organization, we can bring that sense of dignity out of them. It doesn’t have to be an anomaly. It shouldn’t be an anomaly.

We have all heard the story of the guy pushing a broom for NASA, and when someone asked him what he does, he replied, “I put people in space.” That mindset doesn’t have to be an anomaly. I think when we start with that assumption, we can bring out the best version of people in any position that they hold within an organization in any diverse work environment.

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