Motivation has a lot to do with a few factors: source (why), time (when) & space (where), and outcomes (what). The first two are for context and in my view are important to get a deeper understanding of what motivates people, and if you’d like to have the “what can I use now “ part, you can just skip to “3. Outcomes”.
It would be superficial to assume motivation is just external – i.e. I give someone a bonus that will motivate them, if I create the right environment, everyone will be motivated to be productive, etc.
In our experience, intrinsic motivation comes prior to external motivation. Take for instance the case of a person going to work from 9am–5pm. Why do they do it? Is it the salary? Yes, and why are they motivated to have a/that salary? It’s the level of comfort given by an income, not having to worry about tomorrow. It might be that the person is motivated to start their own business and needs the assurance of a fixed income until the business is up and running. Yes, and why are they motivated to have their own business? It can very well be a sense of independence, fulfillment, and happiness.
That’s why before you can pinpoint at someone’s motivation, think of what is their true (intrinsic) motivation. Most of us don’t go flaunting these hidden motivations around. Someone else (say a manager) will not have access to them unless you see in them a genuine interest in what motivates you. In essence, not unless they win your trust first, the basis of human relationships.
External motivation is typically tied to an action/outcome that can be more or less evident.
For instance, the less evident one is when you try to motivate children to walk and you applaud them at every step they take so that they feel the happiness of having progressed. Although they might not be aware of the connection between the applause and their increasing ability to walk, they instinctively pursue the external motivation by repeating what caused it. (I’m not a psychologist, we just have kids!)
The obvious one is clearly defined with cause and effect (finite as opposed to the intrinsic such as happiness). When our annual revenues reach a certain amount, you get a certain bonus. If your performance assessment indicates that you’ve reached all of your goals, you will be provided with an award and a cash bonus. You’ve done well in the past couple of years, and your manager tells you that you’re being promoted (recognized) for your hard work.
Understanding the source of motivation is pretty straightforward, and there are plenty of books and research done on this topic.
However, a simple strategy is to just ask “why” until you have a hard time providing an answer, or know that there’s no deeper level (i.e. like happiness).
- Time and Space
Throughout our career, motivation changes with each time period and place we are in. The first job after graduation might be all about making ourselves valuable, earn a good salary, building our knowledge and expertise beyond a piece of paper, and gather as many wins in a renowned organization. Once we go past our second or third role, we first start thinking about where we could have the most impact, how long it would take to grow enough to become the next best version of ourselves and finally it would be great if we could earn an even better compensation. You’ll notice people taking time periods of 3–5 years to plan their career.
Time and space influence what motivates us. As a manager, you must be aware of the kind of time period and space that each person in your team is in. Some might have just joined your team right out of school and some others might be experienced professionals that can already bring a certain set of knowledge and expertise. For instance, the recent graduate employees might be motivated by working with the more experienced professionals in your team. And the more experienced professionals might be motivated by the possibility to coach and mentor some of the young team members.
Whether intrinsic or external, motivation always needs to be tied to outcomes.
However, understanding the time and space helps you correlate the right outcomes with the right motivation. When someone new comes in, be aware of the fact they are not going to be with you forever. They could be there for 2 years or 5 years. But for them to be motivated to give their best, you need to commit to helping them be their best, regardless of how long they’ll stick around.
- Create a personal development path (i.e. not related directly to company performance requirements) for them with the sole purpose of enabling them to reach their potential and beyond. Make their job about them first, and your company second. It’s a counter-intuitive approach, but when your employees and teams are motivated by their own personal growth first, they will thrive in their jobs and bring results to the company. I like to call that “owning your job.” Even if they work for you today, when they walk out to take another job or open their own business, they leave with all of what they’ve learned, whether you like it or not. So better use that knowledge today to build a win-win situation. Meet regularly to review with the employee the progress of their personal development. This will help you discover the deeper way that feeds your employees’ motivation.
People are motivated to do their best when managers help them know what their best is.
- Open up problem-solving and decision making to all of your team. Its double effect is a tremendous gold mine, that managers tap into so rarely. The first benefit is, of course, the potential of crowdsourcing ideas which can bring so much creativity to the table. Brainstorm, talk about them, turn problems around, and be ready to discuss any apparently crazy idea. The second benefit is the team’s motivation through empowerment. Your team will feel motivated because their manager acknowledges that everyone can contribute, can voice their ideas and be part of the solution. If you can, allow the winning idea to be implemented by the person in the team who came up with it!
People are motivated to do their best when managers give up on trying to be the best by themselves.
- Set, measure and celebrate your team’s impact on your key indicators like client satisfaction, quality of service, a decrease in product returns, process improvement, and even your bottom line. Take time to quantify what performance impact looks like, and challenge them to get there. Start measuring and let them know when you see progress/milestones being achieved and where things didn’t go as expected. Recognize their effort, and challenge them to reach the next milestone. As you quantify the impact, people understand the connection between doing their best to the nitty-gritty details of an organization’s performance.
People are motivated to do their best when they can see or envision an outcome. It’s a manager’s responsibility to paint a vision of that outcome in as many details as possible, and let them know when they have gotten closer to it and by how much.
A motivation that isn’t aligned with your team members in mind is bound to be short-lived, and of little impact.
If you are already a manager or own a company, and have not considered motivating your team, switching to a culture of motivation might seem impossible.
The great news though is that you can tackle some of the possible and apparently impossible things in the real world. And I’m an advocate of starting small.
Start with building trust and transparency with your employees, without expecting anything in return. They will be skeptical at first. Repeat it every month, start writing down what you hear, holding them accountable to their own words (again, not performance items, but rather what they are good at, what they appreciate about the team, or environment or not, etc.) just by asking (not imposing). Then find out whether there’s anything you can help them with: to either help them grow or integrate some of their personal objectives in what they do at work (if possible). And finally, when you are able, help them see their potential when they can’t.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”
― Theodore Roosevelt