What Motivates Employees to “Move the Numbers”?

Rather than have a manager calling to congratulate or complain every day or week about numbers or metrics, I would prefer a manager who gives guidance on how we can continue to do better.

A standout experience in my career is being accountable for numbers. It’s a notable experience because it’s one I didn’t think would be part of my professional life. As a writer and editor, I thought all I would be accountable for was words. However, with the experience of managing a publication’s Website has come the experience of accountability for readership metrics. This experience has raised the question for me of what works best in motivating employees to “move the numbers.” Whether it’s readership metrics or monthly sales, what inspires employees to take the numbers you care about in the direction you want those numbers to go?

Telling employees every day where the numbers stand may not be the best approach. For me, metrics-tracking works like body weight-tracking. I have found it detrimental to weigh myself every day; so, too, do I find it detrimental to check readership metrics every day. Like body weight, day-to-day fluctuations are not nearly as important as long-term trends. One day you’re up, one day you’re down. You can drive yourself crazy wondering why yesterday was a good day and today is a mediocre or bad day. Psychologically, checking the metrics every day can lead to workdays that are framed by how well your numbers happen to be that day. When I was a daily body weight-checker, my days were framed by whether I was up, down, or even. Whether tracking a personal metric, such as body weight, or a business marker such as readership metrics or sales, you do not want employees’ happiness depending on how numbers are tracking each day.

The better approach? To have a manager who tracks the numbers and doesn’t point them out to employees, but, rather, gives guidance based on those numbers. Instead of calling an employee to complain about bad numbers for a day or week, the effective manager would call to collaborate on new ideas for improvement: “Bob, I had some ideas for the site that I think our readers (or customers) are going to like.” The manager goes on to explain them to Bob. “What do you think?” the manager says. “Could we try some of these new things over the next month? I’d like to see how our readers (customers) respond.”

The numbers, after all, are never the important point for the employee doing the work or making the sales—it’s the takeaways from those numbers. Good managers can take on the burden of daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and year-over-year metrics-tracking. They can synthesize what those numbers mean for employees, and then present those takeaways to employees as changes and improvements the team should implement.

I don’t know about you, but rather than have a manager calling to congratulate or complain every day or week about numbers, I would prefer a manager who gives guidance on how we can continue to do better.

The ability of a manager to speak in terms of specific improvements and changes versus complaints and criticism is important for many, if not, most employees. It keeps the conversation with employees positive and focused on what really matters—what the team should be doing the same or differently.

I was curious what has worked for managers in inspiring greater performance, and found a site called Snacknation and the article, “23 Freakishly Effective Ways to Motivate Employees In 2021,” by Jeff Murphy.

One tip Murphy shares that jumped out at me is: “Break big goals into more manageable chunks.” This ties directly into effective metrics tracking and the importance of speaking in terms of to-dos rather than numbers-based critiques. Having a daily or monthly meeting during which you scrutinize and share numbers can be overwhelming and unstimulating—especially for employees who are more verbal than quantitative-minded. What works better is having a manager with great analytical skills, who can look at the numbers and come up with a list of tasks related to what the numbers reveal. For example, let’s say the manager notices people are clicking away from the company’s Website quickly after getting there. Instead of bashing employees over the head with this disappointing metric, the manager could say, “I want to try a few new things that will keep our readers (or customers) on the site longer. Any ideas?” From the ideas generated, the manager can develop a to-do list of assignments for specific employees with due dates for completion. For example, one employee could be in charge of improving the functionality of the site’s shopping cart if it seems customers are leaving the site after placing an item in the shopping cart.

With the right guidance, numbers can mean more than demoralizing criticism or false, ephemeral highs. Well-trained managers can track and interpret the numbers and then create a manageable, accountable list of tasks. The focus then will be on your ultimate goal of making the company better for customers and more profitable.

How do you train managers to use business metrics? Do you train them to interpret the numbers for their employees, so the numbers translate into the creation of better products and services for customers?