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The situation: A scientific researcher has a number of well-reviewed papers in print, but is still looking for “the big break.” One day, cleaning out some drawers in a newly inherited lab space on campus, the scientist finds an unlabeled memory stick. Curious, plugging it in reveals a pristine data set, which immediately  confirms proof of a cure for cancer, but no trace of the owner. The scientist goes on to publish the data under his/her own name and win the Nobel Prize, changing life as we know it.

What motivates you: the work itself or the reward?

The test: who would you prefer to be in this situation, the person who does all the hard work and “solves the problem” but gets no recognition, or the person who gets all the fame and fortune without much regard for the path to the top? You probably have a snap answer…now read the rest of this post and reconsider your answer again at the end. This simple test can increase your self-awareness, and also advance your leadership and coaching when you start conversations by posing the question to your team members.

There are many dimensions of motivation, and leaders can use annual goal setting conversations as a way to understand the unique aspirations and performance triggers of their team members. Public recognition is a reward that inspires some people and embarrasses others. Two great books on the subject of motivation in careers, Drive by Daniel Pink and Peak by Chip Conley, explore these dimensions fully and provide practical advice.

The importance of the Memory Stick Test, however, is to learn who in your team carries a potential integrity risk. Fraudulent misrepresentation and cutting corners to complete a task on time are two points on a scale of short-term thinking that poses a risk to personal and professional success. Treat this perspective as a chance to explore these motivations and coach.

How did you answer the Memory Stick Test? What did you learn from the conversation with your team? Have any other quick conversation starters to explore motivation? Leave a comment, thanks!