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6 Desire Skills​ for Leaders to Retain, Engage & Motivate

We don’t typically use the word “desire” in the work place. It sounds vaguely naughty or sexual and carries implicit nuances of risk and danger. Meanwhile, desire is actually driving everything, including all behaviors at work. Most of us want to do well at work. Want to make the world a better place. Want to flourish post-COVID and be in alignment with our values. Want a job with meaning and purpose that can support ourselves and families. We also generally want food, shelter, pets, feel-good relationships, and compelling Netflix.


In short, humans are desirous wanting machines, and desire is the motor that drives all of our behaviors.


As such, it’s critical for leaders to be intimate with desire, both within themselves and those they lead. This is especially crucial as we emerge from COVID-19, since many workers are reassessing what they want and making changes accordingly. There is a big shift occurring, and we need to 1) know and express what we desire to co-create a new work culture and 2) speak directly to what our employees want post-COVID-19. Perks such as flexibility, remote options, tangible support with mental fitness and work life balance are quickly becoming essentials. Leaders need to speak directly to those wants to prevent the costs of a “great resignation” at their organization, and make it an appealing place to continue working.

Organizationally, we can give our desires a fancier name, like objectives and key results (OKRs). Within relationships and work culture, understanding desire contributes to emotional intelligence and gives us keys to authenticity, engagement, and motivation. When we are transparent about what we want, we are authentic and create trust. When we express curiosity and/or understanding about what our employees want and speak directly to that, it inspires engagement and motivation.


Below are six core skills surrounding desire. As an executive coach and team trust facilitator, I recommend cultivating agility with each one to retain, engage, and motivate:

  1. Identify what we want. Despite being wanting machines, knowing what we want can be incredibly challenging. Whether it’s determining OKRs or in personal contexts, we get blocked. This is why a dazzling array of self help curriculums, therapy, and coaching tools revolve around developing skills with identifying, communicating, and pursuing what we want.

  2. Practice genuine curiosity about what others really want. A twin leadership skill to #1 is to pay close attention to what others want. Intimacy with what our board, colleagues, and reports desire gives us more keys to inspire engagement and motivation. We design effective incentives and expand influence if we know how to speak directly to what others want. We also provide clarity when we speak directly & compassionately about why we can not (or choose not) to provide it.

  3. Name what we want—to ourselves. One reason this skill is hard is that naming what we really want may feel vulnerable or needy. To think or complete the sentence, “I want…” may even feel childish. Yet as an adult, it’s actually an advanced skill--one that we get better at as we outgrow people pleasing tendencies we may have developed as a child. Professionally, it can feel too direct to say "I want", so we soften it: "I would like to see this happen,” “I would love…” and “Would you be willing to…”. In our internal narratives, I recommend getting comfortable with, "I want" as a practice of unabashed self awareness.

  4. Cultivate discernment about timing and context for sharing our desires. In general, offering transparency about what we want is a great habit. But when the stakes are high, with-holding our desires may be smarter. The key is that it's an intentional choice. Ask what are the best times and places to reveal myself, and when is it healthy to be more mysterious or hold my cards closer to my chest? If we are in a toxic or psychologically unsafe work environment, we are likely more concerned about survival than authenticity. Or if we are in talks to take the company public (something we really really desire) but it would be premature and disruptive to share it with everyone, use discernment.

  5. Skillfully communicate what we want—in a way that lands—to offer vision, direction, and inspiration. Sharing what we want in an unfiltered, succinct way can be sophisticated, bold, humble, courageous, vulnerable, and/or authentic, all of which make us more relatable. This is also a skill that strong leaders unabashedly employ. For example, Obama consistently used “I want…” to frame his promises and goals in speeches leading up to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, whereas opponent Mitt Romney opted for “I will…”. Romney lost.

  6. Make it safe for others to name what they want. When we strengthen our skills with #1-5, we grow capacity to create psychological safety for others to share their desires. Fear not a cacophony of unruly employee demands. Instead, knowing what people want creates more psychological safety, which paves the way for good things: clarity, trust, productivity, flow, healthy risk-taking, attunement, innovation, engagement and retention.

So what now? First, awareness: Which desire skills come easily to you, and which don’t? How much do you know about what your colleagues want, both professionally and personally? Are they comfortable saying it and being transparent? If not, is it because the culture makes it unsafe, or because they have a desire skill deficit? Are some colleagues great at asserting their wants without being curious about what others want (i.e. dominate and don’t listen)? Is each member of your team already comfortable completing the sentence, “I want_____?”, or could some team members use skill-building with being simple and clear with it? Are there patterns with who is and isn't comfortable sharing what they want, and is it a diversity/equity/inclusion issue?


Second, challenge yourself to strengthen your desire skills:

• How quickly can you name your own desires, to yourself?

• When talking to colleagues, notice how quickly can you identify what they really want, whether they are naming it explicitly or not. Are they clear with their words, or is there subtext you are picking up on that they are hesitant to name? Is there a culture of desire smuggling--i.e. indirectly asserting desires?

• During 1:1s, coaching, mentoring, and meetings, how genuinely curious are you about what someone wants? Can you amplify your curiosity and elevate it from, say, a 6 to an 8 out of 10? (For ways to do this authentically, watch my video on curiosity.)

• How would you rate yourself and your organization on directly addressing employee desires post-COVID? Where is there resistance toward change? Are you clinging to antiquated pre-COVID norms, or embracing new ones? What small step can you take to welcome and innovate around the desires for remote work, flexibility, and wellness, and thereby advocate embracing change rather than stifling it?


Desire skills will support you with embracing the big shift and attuning to the zeitgeist. Your organization's culture will become a magnet, not a repellant that inspires waves of resignation.


I'd love to hear your reflections, insights, and experiences with desire skill building in the comments below!



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