Motivating people to perform their work at a high level of execution is one of the most challenging tasks a manager has to accomplish. In fact, only managers at an advanced level of skill or an exceptional manager even take the time and mental energy to figure out what motivates their individual employees.

I define motivation as those individual aspects or traits of each person’s identity that impels a person to do or not do certain activities because they want to or don’t want to do them. For example, let’s take the trait of an employee who is just naturally neat and tidy about everything he or she does. Now, why one person is meticulous and another person is sloppy and loose about everything is a psychological issue. I don’t recommend as a manager you spend much time trying to figure out the whys.

My point is that in order to motivate someone, observe what they like to do and what they don’t like to do, how they like to be treated and how they don’t like to be treated, and use that information accordingly when you deal with that person. To finish this example, it would make sense to pick someone who likes to make everything neat and tidy to head up a cleanup detail instead of someone you can count on to leave loose items lying around.

Individual motivation

Motivation is very individual. Although I will provide some general areas of motivation in this article to work with, realize that every person is unique.

In the category of loving what you do, or positive motivation, some individual examples are:

  • People working to do the right thing
  • The pleasure of performing a task well
  • A life-long commitment to doing one’s best
  • Respect for one’s boss and desiring positive feedback that this respect is returned
  • Enjoying the camaraderie of working in a team.

Positive and negative motivation

Motivation, however, is not all positive. People are often more motivated by the fear of losing something than they are by gaining something positive. For example, people do not want to be humiliated by a peer group for not carrying their weight. They do not want to be seen as incompetent or unskilled in their job duties. They sometimes respond better to a challenge that is negatively expressed (Do you think you can get this done?) than one that is positively expressed (I know you can meet this challenge. How about it?).

Although I naturally work with the positive first — and in fact, that is more sustainable over time — my experience is that negative motivation is what some people need and respond positively to. There is a certain amount of irony in recognizing this point, and it is interesting to note this anomaly.

Motivational groups

When it comes to motivation, I find it helpful to consider people in three general groups in order to get some sort of a handle on this subject.

The first group includes the self-starter and self-motivated people. You don’t have to figure out what they need in order to get them to do their jobs — they already know. Now, you do have to make sure with self-starters that you have the same goals and that you are going in the same direction to make working with them a positive experience. Goal clarity is what it is all about with this group.

Everyone thinks that having people who are self-motivated is always a good thing. This is not always true. As an example of how this can be negative, I’ve had many situations where individuals were working for clients and they were exceptionally motivated — to steal everything they possibly could. They performed well with very little oversight in their job duties in order to hide the activities they were really motivated to perform. So, having self-starters, which all managers dream of having, is not always a panacea. As long as someone is working in your best interest — that is, they have the same goals — this group can be a tremendous help in developing a successful organization and, ideally, do not require a lot of maintenance.

The second group is the majority of people who want to do a good job, but like most of us, their performance is helped by a little positive or, in some cases, negative motivation. This negative motivation often involves discipline.

Finally, there is a third general category of people to consider when it comes to the subject of motivation. I call this group the “unmotivatable.” No matter what you do or say, these people do not want to perform the work as structured. Although there are many reasons for this, your primary objective is to either bring about a life-changing experience for them, which happens very rarely, or get rid of them.

This last group, interestingly enough, for advanced and exceptionally skilled managers is by far the smallest. The more unskilled a manager is at motivating people, the bigger this group tends to be. This may be the result of the law of attraction working to attract those who are more like us, or it may be the fact that some managers are so poor at managing people that they take people otherwise motivated in most circumstances and turn them into the unmotivatable. The idea is to figure out which group a person falls into and then interact with him or her accordingly.

Determining a person’s motivation

How do you find out what motivates people? The first and easiest way is to ask people when they first start to work. Some managers will even do this in the interview process. The questions can be something like, “Can you tell me about one of your best achievements at another job?” And then, a follow-up question could be, “What motivated you to do that?”

If these questions are being asked in an interview process, the question to ask can be, “Can you tell me about one of the biggest failures of your career?” And then, a follow-up question would be, “Why did this happen?” Or, you may simply ask someone, “What are some of the things that motivate you at work?” and “What kinds of things turn you off at work?”

A second general way of determining a person’s motivation is to observe that person carefully at work. What does he or she respond to? How is that person performing? An exceptional manager is always looking for what motivates each person who reports to him or her. Some think that behaviors will always tell a manager more than words. When I was a manager, I carried some three-by-five index cards with names and a few motivational points next to them for the people who reported to me. I would pull these cards out periodically and glance at them to remind me of what motivated this particular person.

Motivation is part of the manager’s job

Almost any person of average intelligence or ability can be trained to perform the store manager’s job at a carwash at a basic level of performance. The reason this is true is that it does not take a special education or exceptional intelligence to learn how to operate a carwash. Within reason, almost anybody can be trained to perform this job at, again I stress, a basic level.

To perform at an advanced level or even to become an exceptional manager, however, takes more motivation than special abilities to achieve this higher level of performance. Now, I will explain some of the key activities that a manager needs to decide on whether or not they are motivational to him or her. Love of doing any or all of the following activities can be a prime source of motivation and can move a carwash manager to a higher level of performance.

Equipment

When I was running the CarWash College a few years ago, one of the areas that we set up was an equipment repair room with about a half million dollars’ worth of carwash equipment available so that students could practice repairs and maintenance. Whenever we brought a class in for the first time, a large percentage of the people with experience in the industry would break into a smile, and their faces would light up like fireworks on the Fourth of July. They could hardly wait to put their hands on that equipment.

If you are a little bit of a gear head, a conveyor wash provides a lot of intrinsic motivation. There are hundreds of operating parts in any conveyor carwash tunnel. The care and maintenance of this equipment is either something you love to do or you do it because of the fear of having a breakdown on a busy day. In my experience, people who love to put their hands on these complex pieces of equipment usually can be motivated to take better care of the equipment because they enjoy it.

It is important to note that very few people like or love every aspect of any job. Everyone has to do some things every day that they would rather not do because it’s part of their job. However, if every task is like that, then it is hard to be motivated to perform at a high level. So, managers will usually excel in the areas that motivate them and need to work to minimize any issues they are having with areas that they really don’t enjoy doing.

Cleaning

What a carwash does is clean vehicles. If you really like seeing vehicles leaving your property dry, clean and shiny, then the work of a carwash itself can actually be uplifting. One way to get a handle on this is to look at your own vehicle. The cleaner you keep your vehicle, the more likely you are to enjoy customers’ clean vehicles. And, just like any frequent carwash customer, you may become addicted to always driving around in a clean vehicle. I have seen managers change over time as they get used to a clean car, so this is a motivation that can be cultivated over time.

Another important aspect of cleanliness is keeping everything on the carwash property so spotless and clean that customers are actually conscious of the level of cleanliness. Carwashes can become dirty in the tunnel, in the vacuum area and all over the grounds very easily. It takes a real desire to have a clean, beautiful location to excel in this area.

The third area of cleanliness that impacts customers in a big way is the personal cleanliness and appearance of employees. Customers are less likely to return to a location where the employees are unshaven, wearing dirty uniforms with their shirts out instead of tucked in, showing missing or uncared for teeth — you get the picture. Even a few unkempt people working at a place will alter customers’ perceptions of the general cleanliness of the location.

Managers who want their people, their entire property and their customers’ vehicles to all be perfectly clean can find a lot of motivation intrinsic to managing a carwash.

People

Although carwashes have many of the physical aspects of a retail operation, a conveyor carwash is really a service business. In a service business, the ability to interact successfully with employees who provide the services, as well as the customers who receive them, is critical to the success of that service business. And, it helps a lot if the manager, as a human being, really enjoys their interactions with people.

To many managers, the terms “employee” and “customer” are dirty words. They would be happy if they never had to hire or manage another employee ever again. And, as far as customers go, they feel it would be a great business if they didn’t have customers to deal with. Obviously, in this instance, I am not describing a people person, and this person is unlikely to be very motivated with this aspect of running a carwash.

This particular aspect of a manager’s personality is even more important with more employees on board, as in a full service wash, as well as with more customers, as in any high-volume conveyor operation.

Unpredictability

I have personally interviewed hundreds of carwash managers over the years. One of the questions I always ask is, “What do you like about the job?” One of the answers that I have heard with great frequency is that managers like that “every day is different.” In the mind of most managers, every day is a little unpredictable because of the weather, employee behavior, customer requests or complaints and unusual challenges that might arise with the equipment. And, these managers often speak about how much they enjoy that they are never going to know exactly what the day will look like when they come to work.

Having worked in a variety of industries over the course of my career, I can tell you that many people are not motivated by not knowing what is going to happen on any given day. Instead, they prefer consistency and the daily repetition of activities. In their view, this is what looks like a normal workplace. But, if you like a steady diet of unpredictability, a conveyor carwash can provide tons of motivation.

Challenge

As you have no doubt likely formed the opinion, as a reader of this article, running a carwash is a very challenging position for the many reasons previously stated. There are people who want some challenge every day of their lives. This desire to be challenged and to meet those challenges may be a very strong motivator.

Whether or not someone relishes a challenge when, for example, something goes wrong or he or she is upset that there is now a problem to fix tells a lot about a manager. Some managers really love this aspect, and some run scared because there are too many challenges to deal with.

In fact, wanting a challenge can be a motivation so strong that a manager who possesses this particular motivation will often overcome some of the other aspects of the job and perform capably in areas of lesser motivation because he or she is  the type to rise to a challenge. For example, a manager who is not naturally gifted with technical skills or does not have a burning desire to work on equipment will often manage the basics of preventive maintenance because he or she sees it as a challenge. For this reason, the need to find motivation in areas not natural to a person because it does present a challenge makes this trait a very good one for a carwash manager to have.

Organizations always play a role in this area of challenge, whether consciously or unconsciously. For example, structuring an incentive program with levels of performance (as opposed to a straight percentage) will challenge most managers to perform better even if the challenge is not what motivates them naturally. And, for the person for whom a challenge is important, achieving high levels of performance becomes like a report card to them and can be very motivational.

Money

Most successful carwash store managers make a paycheck that is at or above a level comparable to people in similar industries with similar backgrounds. Also, incentive programs are the rule — not the exception — in the carwash business. Most managers, like most employees, pay attention to what they have to do to earn these extra dollars. However, money should not be counted on in the carwash business as one of the most common primary motivators for several reasons.

First, the carwash industry is not an industry most people enter into as a business where the most money can be made. It does not have that image. People will gravitate more toward a career in something else, like a sales position for example, if money is the primary drive.

Second, the carwash industry tends to attract people without a high level of education who see an opportunity to move up based primarily on their hard work, rather than an expectation that they will do well financially because of their education or family background. In other words, the expectation for exceptionally high income is not there.

Third, money for most people, although a source of motivation, is rarely the primary source of motivation. To know the truth of that, give someone a raise in their base pay and see how long that affects their behavior on the job. Instead of the hoped for year of improved performance until the next review, it usually lasts about two weeks.

In reality, if people were really motivated by money, they would find jobs or create opportunities where they could make more. This comment about money does assume that people are above a survival level financially. We are talking about a little further up on the hierarchy of needs.

Since successful managers do at least as well as managers with comparable education and skills in other industries, money is certainly a factor in retaining good managers. It just does not by itself create high performance as much as some of the other motivators.

Employee needs

Most store managers at carwashes have been promoted from within. This means that they came to work as entry-level employees in most cases. Three motivators in particular attract people to the carwash business as entry-level employees: outside work, physical activity and low education requirement. Managers may continue to be motivated by these carwash industry attractions even after they have been promoted and may also utilize them in their own efforts to motivate entry-level employees.

At a carwash, work takes you outside in all types of weather — blazing hot to freezing cold. If someone likes being out in the elements and hates being cooped up inside, a carwash can be a great place to work.

People who like to perform physical work of some kind gravitate to a business like a carwash. There are many people for whom standing around, sitting down and not doing anything physically really bothers them. A carwash is very physical and at times can be very fast-paced, which may be a very strong attraction for certain types of people.

Many young people have difficulty with formal schooling. A carwash will attract people with a low education level because they quickly find out that their lack of formal education is not a barrier to their ability to move up, even into the top levels of management. This factor has often been a strong motivation to attract and retain people with management potential.

Motivation is a complex subject. After decades of experience, I am still discovering more about this subject all the time. Becoming an observer, student and skilled practitioner in the area of motivation is one of the drives a person needs to become an exceptional manager.


Steve Gaudreau is the President of Brink Results, LLC and has provided consulting and training to the carwash industry for over 25 years. He is also a member of the Professional Carwashing & Detailing advisory board. He can be reached at [email protected].