Friday, October 8, 2010

Bonus Blog: Answering questions re: Student Workers

This question came in:

My position as a manager is somewhat limited by the fact that I must hire part-time student assistants who work on an average of one year for me. The people who work for me are working to support their school-- studies come first. They work between classes for me, an average of 3-5 hours a day.

1. How can I inspire people who work part-time, for a finite period, and don't expect to advance, to nonetheless do their best for me in the time that they spend with me? This is crucial, because even if they don't give their job their all, ultimately I, the full-time worker, am responsible for what they do.

2. Our college philosophy is on-the-job-training, even for student admin assistants. What are some techniques I can use to teach my student admin assistants how to be ready for the work force? Some of my assistants are engineering students who have never worked customer service, some have had a job or two (light admin, retail, cashiering).

There are lengthy answers for both questions. I'm going to try to sum up, and any themes I take a shine to I'll extrapolate on in a main post later.

As a person (as well as a manager), I believe in motivating people more by the carrot than the stick. As a manager there are some built in carrot and stick options: you can promote someone, advance their career in some other way (say by giving a reference), or give them a bonus, just to cite the most common examples. The stick is also easy: performance plan, least fun work assignments, and potentially firing.

I don't typically use this built in carrot and stick as a manager; my managerial style personalizes more than it formalizes. This is not to say that a formal environment doesn't work, just that I've tried, and a more informal one works for me (at least in dealing with my direct team).

Since I'm already into alternative methods of motivation, the situation in (1) can be handled using the ones I rely on most.

In this (as, let’s face it, I do in most cases) I like to provide my own Carrots and Sticks at a less managerial level and more at a social one. I'm going to talk about bribery in a future post, and that's a good way to get started; bribe them with treats. Talk to them. Find out their interests. Tell them your own. Treat them like humans. Tell them you value your contributions. When they do a task, thank them for it (doesn't have to be all gushy, just let them know you noticed).

Effectively, what I'm suggesting is a really good office environment to which they are interested and happy to go. I am also talking about operant conditioning, which sounds pretty bad but actually isn't as bad as it sounds. A side note here: a lot of my philosophy is about telling people what you are trying to do so that you do not end up coming across as fake or untowardly manipulative.

See, the initial Carrot develops in this relationship by associating a good reward--praise--with the behavior you want to see--good work. The secondary developing Carrot is that you get to know them and like them (always a benefit), and they get to know and like you. Them liking you gives you a "Stick" to use: the Stick is that they don't want to disappoint you or get you into trouble (say, by not doing their work).

Developing an environment where you encourage people to praise each other and work together will make them want to be with you everyday (a nice additional benefit), because college is usually a very lonely place; you spend a lot of time under mountains of work, and when you do have to collaborate with someone, its more of a burden than a help. You can't make stapling and customer service "fun," but you can provide a stable, appreciative and healthy environment they will want to go into. Flavor this with the occasional group activity (such as a potluck or taking 10 minutes to do a silly craft throughout the week) and you bond the group to yourself and each other. This enforces the good behavior both through their desire to make the group happy AND the norms and behaviors of group dynamics (making it less your job to make sure they stay on target and more the entire group's).

See, all of that is a lot less Machiavellian sounding than operant conditioning. But that is, at the core, what you are doing. You're just using your powers for good, here.

This fits neatly into (2) above; to work in the work force, you need to know how to work as a team. You need a safe place to make mistakes, and an environment that forgives them but discourages making the same mistake twice. Building a relationship around the environment being a good place is a good start to making them receptive to these skills.

An important part of (2) however, is what I think of as providing a running commentary. It's very easy to take for granted a good work culture, especially if you've never had a work culture before. Your job, as boss, is to point out to the employees (only after you have their buy in) what is good about the situation and to discuss with them why they find it good. You want to do this less on a group basis and more on a one on one, asking them questions about what they expect in the work force and then processing their answers in a friendly way, using your own environment for comparison.

What do you think working at an engineering firm will be like? "I don't know, I figured I'd sit at my desk and work on my computer a lot." Hmm. You'll probably have meetings, right? We have meetings here sometimes. You probably will have them a lot more than here, though and they will probably be different in X and such way...

These are my current best suggestions. If more occurs to me, I'll do another post. Thank you for asking!


  1. An important don’t when motivating people: never give them a reason to undermine another person’s work. This means that you should not offer prizes for the person who does the most: game theory says that it’s only worth making the effort to do more if that’s cheaper than stabbing someone else in the back so they wind up doing less. If you’re offering prizes, offer them for individual or collective goals, but don’t set people up to compete within a team.

  2. Thanks, Max. I completely agree; it didn't occur to me to spell it out. For a collaborative safe, and productive work environment, rewards should be provided for working together and norms should be set to frown on competition that encourages any kind of negative behavior.