The most common approaches to motivating performance fall into two categories:
Rewards Programs. These are designed to appreciate and recognize employees for their work. It might look like a gift card give-away, free meals, bonuses, or increased time-off. The hope is that the reward will motivate future performance.
Corrective Action. These often look like “counseling memos” or Performance Improvement Plans, that address an employee’s poor performance. Instilled is a threat of job loss. The thought is that the punishment is so great, that it will motivate the employee to perform better.
Now, despite employing these two strategies, leaders still struggle to engage the team and motivate performance. Leaders ask, why is the team still doing the bare minimum when they reward good behavior and punish the bad?
Because motivation doesn’t have much to do with carrots and sticks.
It has to do with meeting psychological needs and when our psychological needs are met, we will do and achieve what we want.
Every leader benefits from understanding motivation as it relates to psychological needs. When they do, they don’t just rethink their approach to motivation, they rethink the way they lead.
Here’s how you can too.
Self Determination Theory
Irene, a former client of mine, recently described why she loves her job:
“I like the people I work with and the culture of the organization. We're all very focused on the mission and supportive of each other. I also enjoy the work and I’m good at it. Finally, I have a great boss. She “gets” it. She gives me direction and support when I need it but backs off too. She is one of the first managers I’ve had who makes me feel like she really trusts me.”
Do you think Irene is motivated in her job? You bet she is. And, she’s never been given a gift card for it.
The short description Irene provided ticked off each component of Self Determination Theory (SDT), a macro theory in psychology that explains human motivation. In a nutshell, we are motivated when the following psychological needs are met:
Relatedness – A feeling of belonging. It is often realized by feeling supported and seen.
Competence – This is feeling mastery and confidence in our work. Also, being able to learn, feel challenged, and grow.
Autonomy – Having choice and making our own decisions.
These three psychological needs create intrinsic motivation. This is doing something for its own sake, not because there is a reward or someone else told you to do it. 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).
Upon learning about SDT, many leaders say “I get it. This makes sense. I have felt this before too.” It becomes easy to empathize with the unmotivated individual. Which brings us to the next step, what to do about it.
10 Ways Fuel Self Determination
Fostering self-determination in others is likely one of the greatest gifts a manager can give. It takes time, however, the one thing leaders have little of - and sometimes just coming up with the ideas is the hardest part.
Here are a dozen ways leaders can foster relatedness, competence, and autonomy to fuel self-determination and ultimately motivate performance.
Connect what the team does and the impact they have to the purpose of work. This builds a sense of relatedness within the team, connecting them to something bigger than themselves.
Get to know each member and what motivates them. Specifically know their strengths and areas of expertise. Assign projects to match.
Give routine positive feedback and display gratitude for their contributions, specifically recognize the impact the employee or team makes.
Make it safe and supportive to share mistakes, concerns, and critiques. Talk about your own mistakes and uncertainties to demonstrate it is ok to be vulnerable.
Support and invest in learning activities and professional development. Encourage sharing new knowledge with others.
Avoid solving all the problems. Challenge the team to identify and execute their own solutions, even if you think it’s not the best one. Let them learn.
Provide choice and avoid directives. Give options to choose how to move forward and get work done.
Set goals, celebrate progress and learning.
Acknowledge and invite disagreement or dissenting opinions. Listen and put into action diverse perspectives.
Don’t assume the team knows, tell them you trust them.
This type of team motivation takes more time and often requires a change in the leader’s mindset and behavior. It’s no wonder some prefer to write a line item in the budget for “team recognition” and pay for a few happy hours or put a low performer on a PIP (performance improvement plan). Those approaches are no doubt "easier."
But it's also incomplete. Rewards and punishments alone don't cut it.
What we all want most is our needs met: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
Here's how to get started. Select one or two of the activities above and view them as investments, not just in performance but in people. The time it takes, for example, to communicate big picture, allocate work based on strengths, and hold team discussions to debate alternative options will be worth it, for everyone.
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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 and coaching.
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