Heavy Metal

What are the defining characteristics of metal in our everyday world? It is a strong substance, rigid and supportive. In East Asia, where the principles of Taoism have influenced civilisation for two millennia, the qualities most attributed to people possessing the Metal element are a firm character, unswerving resolve, persistence, determination and, most of all, strength.

The man or woman who is metal-oriented is probably ambitious, with a forceful personality. Sometimes that can lead to a certain intransigence, but the positive side of this is an ability to make bold decisions without the need to ask for third-party opinions, a self-reliance that lends itself to the pressures of high-stress business matters. Metal people are hard workers, colleagues who can be depended on, but they are also liable to be lovers of luxury, surrounding themselves with all things fine and top-grade – mediocrity is not an option.

We know that metal is one of the great conductors of electricity, and for those blessed with metal’s qualities, this translates into strong impulses that are acted upon with vigour. They’re change agents through and through, and their influences are readily imposed on the people with whom they come in contact. Now, doesn’t that just sound like every high achiever? Every winner? Every single incentive programme delegate?

So if the Chinese theory holds up in an argument, incentive programmes would be stacked with a metallic group of hard-nosed individuals who know what they want, will pull out all stops to get it and then wallow in the spoils once it’s achieved. So far, there’s no argument.

Heavy Metal

Rewards that count

Indeed, Taoist theories on the composition of an individual’s character based on the five elements are reinforced by current-day science. Psychometric testing in forms such as a Myers Briggs Type Indicator or Social Styles can reveal similar traits in personality profiling. Profiling achieves a comprehensive range of descriptors on individual personalities – the most common take-out from the testing is the four-letter code ENTJ or INFJ, which is the distillation of one’s personality type.

So after extensive testing and answering copious amounts of questions, can we  rest easy knowing that our personality can be described in a four-letter code? Once stereotyped, stamped and branded, can we  comfortably live life to the letter? Perhaps not.

What makes a person achieve, become a winner, develop the competitive spirit? What fuels their drive, what is it that ignites their passion and has them climbing mountains and fording streams till they find their dreams? What gets them in seat 1A on an incentive trip?

Paul Sedgwick, director of pan-Asian management consultancy Human Capital International (HCI), which specialises in integrated leadership development and talent retention, explains: “Basically, a metal person is incredibly driven and needs a goal in an incentive programme that’s just out of reach for personal motivation to be highest. So however considerations are made about design, the goals need to be set just beyond the limits in a way that they can’t quite see that they can fulfil them right now. If the metal person can achieve the goals easily, their employer isn’t going to get the best out of them.

“The issue with money, particularly for a metal person, is that you need to pay them enough to take the issue off the table, but at the end of the day, it’s not the main motivator for a metal person. Just because they pay them double doesn’t mean that the employer will get double the performance. It’s more the acknowledgement of achievement than the money itself,” Sedgwick continues.

Sedgwick has extensive experience working with multinationals across many Asian countries – China, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, India and Cambodia. His work extends to the Pacific Rim and Africa. Sedgwick and the HCI team see cultural nuances and the heritage of deep-seated lore being a strong component in the balance of work ethics and performance. Culturally, attention to profiling according to tradition plays an important role.

“Asia is a real growth hub for the world in many industries so they’re aware of the fact that competition for talent in the region has become intense. One way that companies support the growth and retention is to provide some of their ‘best and brightest’ with opportunities to grow professionally. This works particularly well for the metal person. The linking of corporate goals and individuals thinking that in 12 months’ time they will be better than what they are today is not only ironic but a cornerstone for increased performance. What we do is work with 
those achievers.

“We take them through a series of management simulations which stretch them beyond their current capacity. We’ll set the bar at the level that they’re expected to perform at, general manager or junior executive for example, and in the process they receive intensive feedback and the opportunity of a personal development plan. The high achievers, who display the metal qualities, revel in two elements: first, they get stretched and tested; and second, they strongly value the feedback they receive so they can only get better – they have a thirst for improvement which leads to the rewards that inspire them: position, status and achievement.”

Some of the contributing factors to an achiever’s make-up are cultural, while others are the individual behavioural traits that manifest in a person’s work, as they do in their personal life. In many Asian cultures, you will find just as many metal people as you will earth, wood, fire or water. Some traits are credited to nurture while others are from nature.

A defining difference between those of the metal quality and others is the need for achievement over affiliation. Sedgwick further explains: “It comes out of some basic thinking of psychology. We fundamentally have three core needs and they’re different in different people – achievement, affiliation and power [according to McClelland’s Theory of Needs]. So someone who has a high need for affiliation will want to be liked by others, where harmony is important.”

Sedgwick adds: “For those who have a higher need for achievement, the roots of their composition are part DNA, part cultural and learned experience – school, role models, etc – and some of it is hard-wiring as well. Culture sets some interesting filters or frames. Asian cultures vary widely. In Thailand, the relationship with the manager and with others is important and presents a different proposition to that of China. I’ve found that the Chinese are incredibly committed to business outcomes, where in other cultures the focus can be centred on how we’re interacting together and pursuing a goal as the important thing. If we were to generalise, I’d argue that the Thai culture has a stronger need for affiliation than the Chinese culture. Singapore is different again, with a blended culture of Chinese and Malay influences. And in the Philippines and India, diametrically opposed influences shape the work performance of individuals. All manifest in different methods of getting the job done – none better or worse than the other.”

This presents a challenge for the incentive planner. An organisation operating across various Asian and western countries would need to take into consideration the variances in cultural influences as they would the basic needs and motivators for individuals.

One size doesn’t fit all

It’s argued that the actual incentive reward – a first-class, high-end trip or a showroom full of expensive merchandise, paradoxically, is not the actual reward.

For the metal person, it’s more the perception that the reward – any reward – has actually been given. The recognition of achievement, which just so happens to come with an all-expenses jaunt around the top end of Italy, on a swank yacht, sipping champagne in the company of other high fliers, is worth more than the reward itself. (Merchandise and incentive reward providers, you may be excused from reading any further.)

Incentive programmes must be based on intelligence and take into account that they engage people with differing needs. Some programmes provide the intrinsic reward during the course of the programme. The metal person will respond to the opportunity for accelerated growth and development sas a leader.

If the programme, as part of its fabric, will allow for that need to be realised, the participant is rewarded twice. His or her inherent need for challenge is being met as an integral part of the programme and the recognition is achieved by being publicly lauded as being an achiever and winning the main prize.

Other programme participants may be focused solely on the prize itself and achievement is merely the mechanism to obtain it. Either way, the results are the same – improved performance. And isn’t that what all incentives are fundamentally about?

The right incentive

Very few western-style performance assessments and incentive programmes, in which staff performance is rated on a scale from one to five, for instance, have any bearing on situations where cultural and traditional standards impact heavily on work practices.

More often than not they fall short of their desired outcome because of their unintended irrelevance. Identifying a smaller number of higher achievers gets lost when supervisors may feel compelled to give each team member a high score on their assessment so they can be better compensated. In some cultures a bonus literally puts food on the table for the family of the employee.

McClelland’s Theory of Needs

Management theorist David McClelland believed that people are motivated according to their needs:

• High need for achievement – High achievers should be given challenging projects with attainable goals. Frequent feedback also motivates them and while money is not necessarily the most important motivation in their life, it’s an effective form of feedback and reinforcement.

• High need for affiliation – Employees with a need for high affiliation perform best in a cooperative environment. They like to be respected, liked and included.

• High need for power – The born leader. Provide these people with an opportunity to shine: to manage others.


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