Good leaders know what makes people tick



Read time
7 mins

office colleagues laughing in a meeting

In order to lead, learn what makes people tick. Knowing how to influence and motivate, while being empathetic and aware of individual personalities is key.


No matter what you’re asking of other people, knowing their motivations will make it easier for you to influence their decision to help you, good leaders learn this information.
Some people will assist merely for gratitude and recognition, others prefer material rewards. Whichever it is, understanding what makes a person WANT to help you is key if you want them to spend their time and effort helping you.

In many cases just having known and worked with someone is enough to know what makes them tick, but what if you’re not so familiar with them?

  • Ask them – simply asking what you can do in return for their help can be enough
  • Ask those who know them – often friends, colleagues or managers of those that you need assistance from, will know them well enough to give you an insight into what’s required to motivate them effectively
  • Learn from previous interactions with them – why have they helped before, what was the reward, what motivated them during a process?
  • Explain that your objectives benefit everyone – this ‘should’ be enough to motivate everyone concerned, if the benefits are substantial enough

Another way to motivate people is to explain why it is that you’re asking for their help and getting them to buy into your vision. Once they’re onboard you’ll have their motivation.
Most people are more motivated by a succession of smaller completed goals, rather than one occasional larger one. Setting these from the beginning will allow you to maintain their motivation and maintain traction.

Body language


Have you ever said something to someone and their physical reaction gave away exactly how they were feeling? Whether it’s a positive or negative reaction, being able to read a persons body language is an important leadership skill, negotiating or simply collaborating.

There are obvious things people do that show how they feel about something or what mood they’re in, but there are also more subtle things that can give away their current state of mind.

  • Fear

    – Widened eyes, the upper eyelids rising and the lower ones tensing. Eyebrows pulled together and upwards, and the lips stretch towards the ears, this often causes the neck to tense, creating vertical ridges

  • Anger

    – Narrowing of the eyes, as this narrows the field of vision (hence ‘seeing red’). As a natural predator, it allows us to focus on a target. People demonstrating this emotion will tighten their lips and narrow their eyebrows too

  • Disgust

    – Flared nostrils, wrinkling of the nose and a raised upper lip give this emotion away, although it’s sometimes harder to spot that the emotions above

  • Contempt

    – Almost a half smile, this emotion is difficult to spot

It’s not just being able to read your colleagues body language that’s important, knowing how to influence their decisions via your own body language is equally important for effective leadership. There are a few ways in which you can do this:

Mirroring – Certain forms of physical mirroring are completely natural and you’ve probably been doing them subconsciously for most of your life. Yawning and smiling are two examples of an action that someone else performs and you mirror. If a relaxed sitting position is adopted by both the person you’re talking to and yourself, then it’s likely that you’re both on the same wavelength and the conversation will go well. If, on the other hand, you’re both sat with folded arms then the chances are there’s some tension or disagreement.

Mirroring helps us to bond with someone or a group of people, and indicates that we feel the same way about a certain topic or process.
When we demonstrate that we’re experiencing the same emotions, we’re also demonstrating mutual trust, connection and understanding.

Body language ‘tells’

Positive body language 

  • Relaxed posture – Comfortably seated, relaxed breathing, no visible stiffness or abrupt movements. These indicate no major barriers to communication
  • Arms relaxed – Uncrossed arms and hands open (palms up or otherwise visible to the other person) are signs of openness
  • Good eye contact – Looking in the other person’s eyes, particularly when they are speaking, indicates interest in that person. Proper eye contact involves looking away occasionally to avoid staring
  • Nodding agreement – When nods are used to punctuate key things the other person has said, they signal agreement, interest and understanding. However, continual unconscious bobbing of the head usually indicates that the listener is tuning out
  • Taking notes – Shows interest and involvement, particularly if notes are on what the other person is saying
  • Smiling/adding humour – This is a very positive sign. It signals a warm personal relationship
  • Leaning closer – Reducing the distance between two people, particularly when the other person is speaking. Indicates interest is up and barriers are down
  • Gesturing warmly – Talking with hands, particularly with palms open, indicates involvement in the conversation and openness to the other person

Negative body language

  • Body tense – Stiffness, wrinkled brow, jerky body motion, hands clasped in front or palms down on the table. These can indicate concern with the topic or dealing with the other person
  • Arms folded in front – Creates a barrier; can express resistance to what is being said
  • Hand on face – A hand over one’s mouth is a closed gesture. Leaning on one’s elbow with the chin in the hand can communicate boredom
  • Fidgeting – Moving around a lot, playing with things and drumming fingers are usually a sign of boredom, nervousness or impatience
  • Arms behind head, leaning back – In a well-established relationship this can be a relaxed gesture. In a new relationship, it is often used to express a desire for control or power
  • Yawning – Boredom, confusion. The other person is talking too much or in too much technical detail
  • Impatience – Trying to interrupt what the other person is saying, opening one’s mouth frequently as if to speak
  • Distraction – Eyes flicking about, blank stares, flipping through literature without really reading it, looking at others in the office, looking at the person’s body or clothing
  • Leaning away – Avoiding moving closer, even when something is handed to the person, is strongly negative

You can tell the expression that people have used most in life from their facial map. As we get older our skin becomes less elastic and the wrinkles formed from facial expressions remain visible even when not being used.
These ‘facial maps’ can be used to gauge to some extent the type of person we’re dealing with and use this to our advantage when influencing.

Lines besides the eyes, or ‘crows feet’ usually indicate a happy person that smiles and laughs a lot

Vertical lines above the top lip – although also caused by smoking these wrinkles can be a giveaway of someone that may disapprove of ideas.



Using people’s individual personalities to your advantage can work wonders when trying to influence colleagues or those around you.
Establishing what makes a person tick, what’s important to them and what motivates people, can be achieved using a technique called ‘Kokology’.

Kokology is a process whereby the ‘subject’ is asked to describe how certain objects (depicted by you) appear in a scene. The example below is called ‘The Cube Game’:

“The game begins by asking another person to imagine a desert (or room) scene. The game then follows by asking the person to place and describe a cube in the scene. Once the cube is completely described, the narrator of the game then asks for the player to describe a ladder that is also placed in the scene. This process continues with foliage and/or flowers, a horse, and finally, a storm.”

The way in which the participant describes each element can be connected to certain parts of their influences, beliefs and personality. Read more about what the answers are believed to mean.

The more you get to know someone and what makes them who they are, the greater your understanding of how to interact and influence them will be. The above process is also great for the participants self-development and personal growth.

Sources: Wikipedia, kokologym.