ATD Blog

To Unleash the Can-Do Spirit, Check Employees’ VITALS!

Monday, December 15, 2014

In our post “Being a Can-Do Leader: Want to Be On the Ball as a Leader? Think TPL!” we promised to explain how an easy to remember acronym, VITALS, can help you unleash an engaging “Can-Do” spirit in people that sparks their willingness to drive for high levels of performance. 

Please note that we said “enable you to unleash” this spirit, in your role as manager. Not create it, but unleash it. This is because the true Can-Do spirit isn’t just a matter of being persuaded that we can do something. The “spirit” part of it is a visceral feeling that energizes us to want to do something—want it a lot. And, of course, when these feelings are in force, performance is likely to soar.   

Feelings of enthusiastic determination can only come from within each person. A leader cannot force this to happen with exhortations, demands, and speeches. But here’s the good news: You can, as a manager, create the conditions that will unleash this Can-Do spirit in others. 

Before we explain how, here’s a very important can-do leader caveat: Do not put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Most likely you’ve heard the oft quoted homily: “If you want to understand another person’s point of view, you must put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” We feel that is bad, or at least misleading, advice! 

It’s not enough to mentally put yourself in the other person’s position. If you do that, it’s still you that is being put in that position. If the issue is what will motivate this person in these circumstances, it is irrelevant what would motivate you in this situation. 

The fact is that each person has his or her own particular set of personal motivators, which cannot be identified by simply projecting our own motivational profile onto another person. So, how can we go about identifying and making good use of the motivational profiles of the people who work with us? 

Check their VITALS 

An effective way to zero in on a person’s key motivators is to do your best to become familiar with their particular Values, Interests, Talents, Aspirations, Longings, and Style. In other words, check their “VITALS.” This word can serve as a useful acronym to help you remember each of these important motivational factors. 

Simply put, the Can-Do spirit is most likely to be unleashed in people when their most important VITALS can be satisfied at work. You might think of this as mentally checking a little box associated with each of their VITALS. Here’s how it works: 

Values refers to the standards or principles that a person believes are important to uphold in life, which could include things like trustworthiness, loyalty, fairness, and beliefs. 

A person’s values are important to consider when giving an assignment because if you ask someone to behave in a way that is opposed to what he believes in, you may actually motivate him to work against you. In a diverse workplace, it is particularly important for a leader to appreciate the power of the cultural beliefs of the different groups represented. 


For example, if Lee comes from a culture where being singled out for public praise is personally embarrassing, it would be more effective to praise him in private. 

Interests are the particular work-related subject areas that grab and hold a person’s attention. The deeper a person’s interest in something, the stronger her motivation will be to work on projects that allow her to pursue that interest. The curiosity associated with strong interests is what motivates the kind of learning that pays dividends in the workplace. 

For example, if John loves to solve problems, giving John an opportunity to solve a complex customer fulfillment issue is likely to pique John’s interests in a way that unleashes his can-do spirit. 

Talents refer not only to strong skills that a person may have developed, but also to the underlying ability or aptitude that makes it possible for someone to develop a noteworthy skill. When a person has a strong talent in a particular area, that person often enjoys developing and displaying that talent. The key is to identify the particular talents a person has that he or she would enjoy developing and displaying. 

For example, if Maria is very skilled at creating innovative software designs and likes to talk about her creations, providing Maria opportunities to demonstrate this talent on the job is likely to be very motivating for her. 

Aspirations are the ambitions that a person has—what this person wants to be and achieve in the future. A person’s aspirations may shift over time, but the more you know about what a person thinks he wants to achieve in terms of his career goals, the better able you will be to match him with assignments that will make him feel like he is pursuing his dream. 

For example, if Sandip, a very competent engineer in a high-tech company, has aspirations for management roles, giving him opportunity to manage an engineering project is likely to be highly motivating for him. 

Longings are the nagging (when not sufficiently satisfied) psychological needs that people bring to the workplace. This includes things like a fondness for stability and predictability, a desire for personal achievement, a continuing need for close personal relationships at work, a strong desire to be held in high esteem by colleagues, or a desire to be in charge or in control. 


For example, if Trish has strong relationship needs, she is likely to be most engaged when given opportunities to work collaboratively in a group. If Damita, on the other hand, has a low need for affiliation but a very high need for autonomy, she is likely to be quite motivated when given opportunities to work independently. 

Style at work refers to a person’s characteristic ways of taking in information, making decisions, dealing with success and failure, and interacting with others. The style concept focuses on preferences rather than abilities. When we understand other people’s personal styles, we are better able to find effective ways of being influential with them. 

For example, if Pablo is a planner by nature and likes to be particularly well organized and structured in how he approaches work, giving him an assignment that allows him to draw on this preferred style is likely to increase his level of motivation. 

A thought you might be having right now is: This "Check their VITALS" strategy might sound like a good idea, but how can I possibly know all these things about the people who work with me? 

Identify their VITALS 

To get a handle on someone’s VITALS, you can observe his or her reactions to different situations and assignments and make your best guess. But a more reliable way to understand other people’s VITALS is to simply ask them to tell you about themselves. 

Ask them what particularly interests them: What are their near and long-term ambitions? Ask about the kinds of activities and hobbies they find most interesting when not at work. Listen carefully to their responses and use the VITALS acronym as your mental checklist. 

You’ll never learn everything there is to know about another person’s motivators. But if you ask people a few questions about their VITALS, you’ll know a lot more about what motivates them than you did before. And when you give them an assignment, you’ll be better able to unleash the Can-Do spirit! 

About the Author

Dr. Frank Satterthwaite is a professor of organizational leadership and a past director of the MBA program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Frank, who has contributed numerous blogs to ATD’s Community of Practice, is co-author of Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager (ATD Press). He is also the senior author of The Career Portfolio Workbook: Using the Newest Tool in Your Job-Hunting Arsenal to Impress Employers and Land a Great Job (McGraw-Hill), a bestselling career book that was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” at the Wall Street Journal. In addition to his cover story for TD Magazine, “The Delegation Conundrum,” his articles have appeared in national magazines, including Esquire. He has appeared on nationally broadcast radio and TV programs in the United States and Canada, and is currently doing webcasts for ATD. Frank also has a management consulting practice in which he helps managers become Can-Do Leaders. He studied psychology at Princeton and received his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Yale. Earlier in his career Frank was a member of the U.S. national men’s squash team. Frank and his architect wife, Martha Werenfels, live in Rhode Island and are proud parents of their two sons, Peter and Toby.

About the Author

Jamie Millard, co-author of Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager (ATD Press), is the executive partner and co-founder of Lexington Leadership Partners, an executive coaching and customized leadership development and training firm focused on developing can-do leaders who demonstrate commitment, competence, and courage. He formerly led the national organization change management practice at CSC Consulting. Prior to that, Millard was a partner at Harbridge House, where he led the continuous improvement and project management customized training and consulting practices. He holds a bachelor of science degree from the US Military Academy at West Point and an MBA from the University of Rhode Island. He is a proud veteran and member of the Global Educator Network with Duke Corporate Education.

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