Motivating staff

Motivating staff is one of the most common and regular challenges that the leadership and management of a business often wants and has to address.

Typically when gathering and evaluating options in how to tackle staff motivation issues, the people at the head of the business reflect on their own personal motivations and use this to help determine the strategy and actions to take in addressing general employee motivation.

Employee engagement has been around for a long time now, but we’re all still trying to master it within each unique business context. There are so many variables to each business not least with it’s people, the ones that the business wants to better engage with and the ones that want to be engaged with and engage back with the business. We regard employee engagement to be a fit between the head, heart and hands of an employee, when what they do, who they do it for and on behalf of is right, emotionally, mentally and physically which results in the sustained intrinsic motivation state employers and employees most often seek and are most content with.

Head Hands and Hearts venn diagram of employee enagagement

Understanding the level of employee engagement in a business and how to better engage with employees to improve organisational performance through improved and sustained employee or staff motivation, enables you to start the journey of progressively and continuously improving it and in turn improving the bottom line, in every aspect.

Improving staff motivation to;  show up each day (even when you’re not quite feeling your best), to support your colleagues, the company’s goals, values and vision and to do your best as often as possible and yes, to go the extra mile when you can, because you are respected, valued, supported and recognised by the people you work for and with every day.

The following examples of attitudinal assumptions or myths often held by leaders and people in general, help explain the much broader subject of individual intrinsic motivation and the many perspectives people possess in their unique approach to work and their relationship with their employers.


Motivation example 1 – ‘everyone is like me’

One of the most common assumptions we make is that the individuals who work for us are motivated by the same factors as us. Perhaps you are motivated by loyalty to the company, enjoying a challenge, proving yourself to others or making money. One great pitfall is to try to motivate others by focusing on what motivates you.


Marie, a director in her company, was being coached. She was a perfectionist. Every day she pushed herself to succeed and was rewarded with recognition from her peers. But she was unable to get the same standard of work from her team members. In the first few weeks of her coaching she would say, “If only people realised how important it was to put in 110% and how good it felt to get the acknowledgement, then they would start to feel more motivated”.

But it wasn’t working. Instead people were starting to become resentful towards Marie’s approach. Acknowledgement was a prime motivator for Marie so to help her consider some other options, she was helped to brainstorm what else might motivate people in their work. Marie’s list grew: ‘learning new skills’, ‘accomplishing a goal as part of a team’, ‘creativity’, ‘achieving work-life balance’, ‘financial rewards’ and ‘the adrenaline rush of working to tight deadlines’. Marie began to see that perhaps her team were indeed motivated – it was simply that the team members were motivated in a different ways to her own.

If the leader can tap into and support the team members’ own motivations then the leader begins to help people to realise their full potential.


Motivation example 2 – ‘no-one is like me’

Since the 1980’s, research has shown that although we know that we are motivated by meaningful and satisfying work (which is supported by Herzberg’s timeless theory on the subject, and virtually all sensible research ever since), we assume others are motivated mainly by financial rewards. Chip Heath, associate professor at Stanford University carried out research that found most people believe that others are motivated by ‘extrinsic rewards’, such as pay or job security, rather than ‘intrinsic motivators’, like a desire to learn new skills or to contribute to an organisation.

Numerous surveys show that most people are motivated by intrinsic factors, and in this respect we are mostly all the same.

Intrinsic motivation extrinsic motivation grid

Despite this, while many leaders recognise that their own motivation is driven by factors that have nothing to do with money, they make the mistake of assuming that their people are somehow different, and that money is central to their motivation.

If leaders assume that their team members only care about their pay packet, or their car, or their monthly bonus, this inevitably produces a faulty and unsustainable motivational approach.

Leaders must recognise that people are different only in so far as the different particular ‘intrinsic’ factor(s) which motivate each person, but in so far as we are all motivated by ‘intrinsic’ factors, we are all the same.


Motivation example 3 – ‘people don’t listen to me’

When some people talk, nearly everyone listens: certain politicians, business leaders, entertainers; people we regard as high achievers. You probably know people a little like this too. You may not agree with what they say, but they have a presence, a tone of voice and a confidence that is unmistakable. Fundamentally these people are great sales-people. They can make an unmitigated disaster sound like an unqualified victory. But do you need to be like this to motivate and lead?

Certainly not. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the only people who can lead others to success and achieve true excellence, and are the high-profile, charismatic, ‘alpha-male/female’ types. This is not true.

James was a relatively successful salesman but he was never at the top of his team’s league table. In coaching sessions he would wonder whether he would ever be as good as his more flamboyant and aggressive colleagues. James saw himself as a sensitive person and was concerned that he was too sensitive for the job.

James was encouraged to look at how he could use his sensitivity to make more sales and beat his team mates. He reworked his sales pitch and instead of focusing his approach on the product, he based his initial approach on building rapport and asking questions. He made no attempt to ‘sell’. Instead he listened to the challenges facing the people he called and asked them what kind of solution they were looking for. When he had earned their trust and established what they needed he would then describe his product. A character like James is also typically able to establish highly reliable and dependable processes for self-management, and for organising activities and resources, all of which are attributes that are extremely useful and valued in modern business. When he began to work according to his natural strengths, his sales figures went through the roof.

Each of us has qualities that can be adapted to a leadership role and/or to achieve great success. Instead of acting the way we think others expect us to, we are more likely to get others behind us and to succeed if we tap in to our natural, authentic style of leadership and making things happen. The leader has a responsibility to facilitate this process.


Motivation example 4 – ‘some people can’t be motivated’

While it’s true that not everyone has the same motivational triggers, as already shown, the belief that some people cannot be motivated is what can lead to the unedifying ‘pep-talk and sack them’ cycle favoured by many X-Theory managers. Typically managers use conventional methods to inspire their teams, reminding them that they are ‘all in this together’ or that they are ‘working for the greater good’ or that the management has ‘complete faith in you’, but when all this fails to make an impact the manager simply sighs and hands the troublesome employee the termination letter.


The reality is that motivating some individuals does involve an investment of time.

When his manager left the company, Bob was asked by the site director, Frank, to take over some extra responsibility. As well as administrative work he would be more involved in people management and report directly to Frank. Frank saw this as a promotion for Bob and assumed that he would be flattered and take to his new role with gusto. Instead Bob did little but complain. He felt he had too much to do, he didn’t trust the new administrator brought in to lighten his workload, and he felt resentful that his extra responsibility hadn’t come with extra pay. Frank was a good manager and told Bob that he simply had to be a little more organised, and that he (Frank) had complete belief in Bob to be able to handle this new challenge. But Bob remained sullen.

So Frank took a different approach: He tried to see the situation from Bob’s point of view. Bob enjoyed his social life, but was no longer able to leave the office at 5pm. Bob was dedicated to doing a good job, but was not particularly ambitious, so promotion meant little to him. Bob was also expected to work more closely now with a colleague with whom he clashed. Then Frank looked at how Bob might perceive him as his boss. He realised Bob probably thought Frank’s hands-off management style meant he didn’t care. To Bob it might look as if Frank took no direct interest except when he found fault. Finally, Frank looked at the situation Bob was in to see if there was anything bringing out the worst in him. He realised two weeks of every month were effectively ‘down-time’ for Bob, followed by two weeks where he was overloaded with work. Having set aside his assumptions about Bob and armed with a more complete picture from Bob’s point of view, Frank arranged for the two of them to meet to discuss a way forward.

Now the two were able to look at the real situation, and to find a workable way forward.

While there is no guarantee that this approach will always work, ‘seeking to understand’, as Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ puts it, is generally a better first step than ‘seeking to be understood’.

It’s easier to help someone when you see things from their point of view.


Motivation example 5 – ‘but I am listening’

We are always told how valuable listening is as a leadership tool and encouraged to do more of it. So, when we remember, we listen really hard, trying to catch every detail of what is being said and maybe follow up with a question to show that we caught everything. This is certainly important. Checking your email, thinking about last night’s big game and planning your weekend certainly stop you from hearing what is being said.

But there is another important aspect to listening and that is: Listening Without Judgement.

Listen to understand and not just to reply quote

Often when an employee tells us why they are lacking motivation we are busy internally making notes about what is wrong with what they are saying. This is pre-judging. It is not listening properly.

Really listening properly means shutting off the voice in your head that is already planning your counter-argument, so that you can actually hear, understand and interpret what you are being told. See the principles of empathy.

This is not to say that ‘the employee is always right’, but only when you can really understand the other person’s perception of the situation are you be able to help them develop a strategy that works for them.

Listening is about understanding how the other person feels – beyond merely the words that they say.


Motivation example 6 – ‘if they leave I’ve failed’

What happens if, at their meeting, Bob admits to Frank that he doesn’t see his future with that company?

What if he says the main reason he is demotivated is that he isn’t really suited to the company culture, and would be happier elsewhere? Has Frank failed?

Not necessarily. It’s becoming more widely accepted that the right and sustainable approach is to help individual employees to tap in to their true motivators and understand their core values. Katherine Benziger’s methodologies are rooted in this philosophy: Employees who ‘falsify type’ (ie., behave unnaturally in order to satisfy external rather than internal motives and drivers) are unhappy, stressed, and are unable to sustain good performance.

Effort should be focused on helping people to align company goals with individual aspirations. Look at Adam’s Equity Theory to help understand the complexity of personal motivation and goals alignment. Motivation and goals cannot be imposed from outside by a boss – motivation and goals must be determined from within the person, mindful of internal needs, and external opportunities and rewards.

Sometimes the person and the company are simply unsuited. In a different culture, industry, role or team that individual would be energised and dedicated, whereas in the present environment the same person doesn’t fit.

Sometimes ‘success’ doesn’t look the way we expect it to. A successful outcome for an individual and for a company may be that a demotivated person, having identified what sort of work and environment would suit them better, leaves to find their ideal job elsewhere.

You succeed as a leader by helping and enabling people to reach their potential and to achieve fulfilment. If their needs and abilities could be of far greater value elsewhere, let them go; don’t force them to stay out of loyalty. Helping them identify and find a more fitting role elsewhere not only benefits you and them – it also enables you to find a replacement who is really suited and dedicated to the job.

True leaders care about the other person’s interests – not just your own interests and the interests of your organisation.


Motivation example 7 – ‘the same factors that demotivate, motivate’

When asked what brought about lack of motivation at work, the majority of people in research carried out by Herzberg blamed ‘hygiene factors’ such as working conditions, salary and company policy. When asked what motivated them they gave answers such as ‘the sense of achievement’, ‘recognition’, ‘the opportunity to grow and advance’ and ‘greater responsibility’.

Herzberg’s findings about human motivation have been tested and proven time and gain. His theory, and others like it, tell us that the factors that demotivate do not necessarily motivate when reversed. The conventional solution to dissatisfaction over pay levels would be to increase pay in the belief that people would then work harder and be more motivated. However, this research shows that whilst increasing wages, improving job security and positive working relationships have a marginal impact, the main factors that characterise extreme satisfaction at work are: achievement, recognition, interesting work, responsibility, advancement and growth.

So it follows that leaders who focus on these aspects – people’s true motivational needs and values – are the true leaders.


Help people to enrich their work and you will truly motivate.


Motivation example 8 – ‘people will rise to tough challenges’

Many managers hope to motivate by setting their people challenging targets. They believe that raising the bar higher and higher is what motivates.

Tracey was an effective and conscientious account manager. Her boss habitually set her increasingly tough objectives, which Tracey generally achieved. However, in achieving her targets last month Tracey worked several eighteen-hour days, travelled extensively overseas, and had not had a single weekend break. Sometimes Tracey would mention to her boss that the effort was taking its toll on her health and happiness.

When Tracey handed in her latest monthly report, her boss said, ‘You see? It’s worth all the hard work. So, don’t complain about it again.’

Her boss’s belief was that Tracey would get a sense of satisfaction from completing an almost impossible workload. He was relying on her sense of duty – which she had in bucket-loads – to get the job done.

But this is the KITA style of motivation (Kick In The Arse). It doesn’t really acknowledge a dedication to the job or a sense of pride. Its leverage or ‘motivation’ is simply a lack of choice.

Job enlargement is different to Job enhancement. Herzberg’s research shows that improving the ‘meaningfulness’ of a job (see also motivation example 7) has the motivational impact, not simply increasing the amount of pressure or volume of the tasks.

Achievement for achievement’s sake is no basis for motivation – a person’s quality of life must benefit too.


Motivation example 9 – ‘I tried it and it didn’t work’

When you try new things – new motivational ideas, especially which affect relationships and feelings – it is normal for things initially to get a little worse. Change can be a little unsettling at first. But keep the faith.

People are naturally sceptical of unconventional motivational approaches. They may wonder why you have suddenly taken such an interest in them. They may feel you are giving them too much responsibility or be concerned that changes in the way they work may lead to job losses. Herzberg’s research is among other evidence, and modern experience, that after an initial drop in performance, people quickly adjust and respond to more progressive management and motivational attitudes.

Supporting and coaching people through this stage of early doubt is vital.

Encourage and help people to grow and develop, and performance improvement is inevitable.


Motivation example 10 – ‘this type of motivation takes too much time’

If you’ve absorbed the ideas above, you might wonder where you would find the time to motivate people using these approaches.

It is true that this style of leadership, sustainable motivation, commitment and focus is in the beginning more time consuming than ‘KITA’ methods; this is bound to be, since KITA methods require far less thought.

Engaging fully with your staff, understanding their wants, desires and values, getting to know them as individuals and developing strategies that achieve a continuous release of energy is more intensive and takes time to work.

But consider the advantages. This investment of time means you will eventually have less to do. Instead of constantly urging your people along and having to solve all the problems yourself, you’ll be the leader of a group performing at a higher level of ability and productivity, giving you the chance to step back from fire-fighting and to consider the bigger picture.

Herzberg was not alone in identifying that leaders need invest in the development of their teams, and also of their own successors. See leadership theories. Douglas McGregor’s X-Y Theory is central too. So is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from the individual growth perspective. And see also Bruce Tuckman’s ‘Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing’ model. All of these renowned theories clearly demonstrate the need for teams, and the individuals within them, to be positively led and developed.

Your responsibility as a leader or people manager is to develop all employees, or your immediate team so that they can take on more and more of your own responsibility. A mature team should be virtually self-managing, leaving you free to concentrate on all the job-enhancing elements and strategic aspects that you yourself need in order to keep motivated and developing yourself and the business.

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