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How Leaders Can Motivate Their Team

Leaders at every stage in their career are challenged with trying to motivate their teams. Many managers wonder if there are specific words and phrases that will do it. Some try buying everyone lunch or offering free coffee in the breakroom.

In cases of poor performance, threats are sometimes handed out to try to motivate people to change. This is when you start to hear about counseling memos and PIPs (performance improvement plans) that have an underlying message. Something like, “if you don’t improve your performance, you may lose your job.”

Magic words, treats, and threats don’t do much to inspire motivation. These are the proverbial “carrots and sticks”, or extrinsic motivators, that are believed to inspire but, for the most part, don’t. This is because extrinsic rewards can foster compliance driven behavior. This means people only do something to receive a reward or avoid a punishment. When this happens, there often are unintended consequences.  Here’s an example:

A hospital uses bonuses to motivate staff to pick up extra shifts. This is to make working extra hours enticing and reward people for the extra work. Despite bonuses being offered, slots still go unfilled. Often, a hospital then increases the bonus for remaining vacant spots. Now, staff wait to see how high the bonus will go before picking up a shift. The hospital is paying above and beyond what was originally budgeted for staffing and employees are no more motivated to pick up extra hours than they were before bonuses were offered.

This isn’t to say that all “carrots and sticks” or extrinsic rewards should be banished from organizations. Not at all. Perks can go a long way in helping folks feel like they’re appreciated and recognized at work. But it’s important to understand the potential effects they have.

To get the best results out of teams, it’s best to tap intrinsic motivation. This is wanting to do something just for the sake of it. Often, a reward isn’t needed. Rather, fulfillment and satisfaction are felt just by engaging in the work.

There is a clear performance payoff too.  “Intrinsically motivated employees are more likely to be highly engaged and more involved in their work, as well as display a greater readiness to step up and take responsibility” (Kuvaas & Dysvik 2009). It’s every manager’s dream to have an intrinsically motivated team.

If it’s your dream too but you haven’t a clue how to get there. Here are a few tips.

Understand Self Determination Theory (SDT)

This macro theory in psychology explains human motivation. In a nutshell, we are motivated when the following psychological needs are met:

  • Competence – This is feeling mastery and confidence in our work. Also, being able to learn, feel challenged, and grow.

  • Autonomy – Having choices and making our own decisions.

  • Relatedness – A feeling of belonging. It is often realized by feeling supported and seen.

These three psychological needs create intrinsic motivation. Extensive research points to the connection between self-determination and performance outcomes. It is no wonder that when these three needs are satisfied, it promotes “…autonomous motivation, high-quality performance, and wellness.” (Deci, Olafson, and Ryan March 2017).

Ways to leverage SDT with your team:

  • Provide opportunities for your team members to share and use their strengths. If you don’t know what they’re good at, find out. This can help meet their need for “competence”.

  • Allow for choices and options for getting work done. If there is a problem to solve, define it and let them solve it on their own. This taps “autonomy”.

  • Foster a team environment of appreciation and gratitude. Model acknowledging people for their contributions. Embrace diverse ideas and actions. This is to build “relatedness” within the team.

Conduct routine check-ins.

Motivation is highly personal. This means a manager must understand their employees at an individual level. This requires routine 1:1 meetings where conversations about motivation can be had consistently. This is because motivations change. Your direct report may find a lot of purpose and fulfillment in their work one day. Then, 3 months later the novelty or excitement has passed, and they now find it mundane.

If you’re a boss and you’re not conducting 1:1 check-ins with each member of your team, it’s time to begin. If you are conducting them but find that you most of the talking, you might be doing them wrong. If either ring true read this: Be a Great Leader: Master the One-on-One. It will help you either start conducting check-ins or get back on track with them.

Talk about motivation and ask questions about it

Investing the time to understand what motivates someone is well worth it. Rik Nemanick offers a simple framework in Harvard Business Review that includes three questions. Ask your team members individually:

  1. What have you accomplished in the last 4-6 months that makes you the most proud?

  2. What is getting in the way now (de-motivators)?

  3. What would you like to do more of?

These are great conversations to have a couple times a year during check-ins. In these conversations, also ask about preferences for extrinsic rewards. These are the “nice-to-haves”. Such as, do they like public recognition, do they consider food or drinks a nice perk, and if they were to receive a reward for work well done, what is their preference?

Motivating others is really about getting to know your team and building productive and trusting relationships with them. When you do this, you will create a work environment where everyone will flourish, including you.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.


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