What if I said you were wasting your time trying to motivate your employees? Would you think I’ve committed leadership heresy? Would you say I’ve gone off the deep end and lost touch with the reality? Maybe I am a heretic. Maybe I have gone a little bit cuckoo.
But I’ll say it anyway. You’re wasting your time trying to motivate people.
The reality is people are always motivated. The question is not if they are motivated, but why. That’s the question my colleague Susan Fowler is imploring leaders to ask as they consider how to best lead their team members in achieving their goals and those of the organization. Susan’s recent book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, along with the training program Optimal Motivation, explores how leaders can help their people tap into the psychological needs that drive their motivations. Once you and your people understand why you do what you do, you can master the ability to choose a more positive and productive motivational outlook.
For too long leaders have relied on “carrot and stick” strategies to try to motivate employees. Because B.F. Skinner was able to get pigeons to turn around in circles by offering them food pellets, we assumed we could get people to perform specific behaviors by offering them their own version of food pellets: bonus checks, reward trips, certificates to hang on the wall, etc. That may work for the short-term and for rudimentary, repetitive kinds of tasks, but it won’t unlock the long-term passion and commitment of your people that leads to sustained engagement in today’s knowledge economy.
Rather than focusing on carrot and stick strategies that only address external motivation and short-term results, focus on these three psychological needs that help people tap into their deeper, sustainable levels of internal motivation:
Autonomy – It’s human nature to desire independence and to feel in control of our lives. That desire doesn’t stop at the office door. Help your people be clear on the goals they have to achieve and the boundaries they’re operating within and then give them the authority and responsibility to get the job done the way they see fit. As much as possible, engage them in designing the work systems, creating the metrics used to manage their work, and evaluating the quality of everything they produce. When people are in control of achieving the goal they take more ownership and use their discretionary energy to help the organization succeed. Helping employees develop autonomy is not “letting the inmates run the asylum.” It’s giving them the space and freedom within defined boundaries to manage their work with an ownership mentality.
Relatedness – We are hardwired to have interpersonal connections with other people to one degree or another. Your people are much more than worker drones showing up to do a job for eight hours. They are complex, rich, dynamic people with amazing life stories and the relationships they have at work are primary threads in the tapestry of their lives. Leaders can foster a sense of relatedness by encouraging people to connect on the job through mentorships, buddy systems, and activities that foster team morale. As the boss, make the effort to share more information about yourself and the organization to increase transparency and authenticity with your team. The Johari Window is a helpful model that illustrates how you can improve communication and build trust with others by disclosing information about yourself.
Competence – People have an innate desire to continually develop competence in their skills, talents, and abilities. Continuous growth and learning is critical to help people address the challenges and obstacles that come their way. Neglecting to develop the talents of your people is leadership malpractice. People who are ill-quipped to handle workplace challenges quickly become overwhelmed and give up, while those who are committed to ongoing development are able to flexibly adapt to changing business conditions.
Motivation isn’t something that a person either has or doesn’t have. Everyone is motivated in one way or another. They key question is “What is the quality of their motivation?” I have a belief that you can’t motivate anyone. It’s up to each person to choose their level of motivation. But what I can do is help create an environment that encourages and allows people to be optimally motivated.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to develop Optimal Motivation for yourself and others, join the free Leadership Livecast Motivating People Doesn’t Work…What Does? on February 25 or 26.