Working with a motivated team is one of the best environments to be in, in general, but even more so for a manager. Not only is it rewarding and fun in and of itself but the more motivated everyone around you is, the more motivated you will be, too. This pays dividends in performance. The happiest, most motivated employees are also the ones who do the best work, who have the highest impact, and who contribute towards the whole company’s success the most. As someone who leads people, there’s almost nothing more fulfilling than taking your team to that place. Because motivation is such a complex topic, this article is focused on small steps that each and every manager can take, irrespective of their environment or experience, to motivate their team.
My Personal Experience
One event early on in my career made this stick with me. The support department I was working in tested out team goals on a trial basis. Each team was given a certain number of tickets that they would aim to finish that day. We started doing this at a pretty high-stress time, and many teams didn’t find it as motivating as we had hoped because our goals were on the ambitious side. We ended up having to do a Saturday shift (on a voluntary basis). The members of my team who signed up for that shift set themselves a goal on their own for that day to work towards. It was an extremely ambitious goal. They motivated each other and cheered each other on throughout the shift (remotely, through Slack). By the end of the day, they had achieved it.
I was so incredibly proud. I loved that these team goals went from being something that was imposed, top-down, to something that the team used and applied themselves (there’s a big lesson about management to be learned there too). I was happy that they felt empowered to set goals for themselves and created this environment where it was fun, something that brings the team closer together, something that they all aspired to achieve. Crunch times like this are some of the hardest times at work but they can be the times that pay off the most in team cohesion.
This was the point at which the team was most motivated. You could tell because the motivation they displayed was intrinsic. Nothing about it was created through an external force (beyond the elevated workload) and it ultimately paid off, not just in the atmosphere amongst the team but also in their productivity. That was one of their most productive periods of all time and it happened exactly when we needed it. In an ideal scenario, this level of motivation is what you’d have all the time.
Setting your standards that high might not seem realistic but there’s a lot you can do as a manager to create an environment within your team that’s most conducive to motivating them. It’s important to understand that you might be limited in some ways. Motivation is rather nebulous and mostly intrinsic, it’s hard to influence it very heavily in the positive direction from the outside. It’s very easy to demotivate people, however, so it’s important to be aware of that, too.
Why Motivating Your Team Can Be Complicated
The reasons for demotivated employees can be endless but they often start with the management style they’re experiencing. It’s difficult for any manager, especially if they’re new to management, to be aware of what motivates people and to consciously work on their management style to create an environment in which people are more likely to be motivated to work there. There are two main reasons for this.
The first one is the limitations of the work culture you already have. There’s a huge difference between an environment in which every employee feels a sense of ownership in and responsibility for their work and an environment in which every team member feels like a cog in a wheel who just does what they’re expected to do. The former is more likely to lead to motivated employees because they are empowered to make the decisions that they feel are important and valuable. In the latter, they’re much more likely to disengage because they feel they have no say in what happens around them anyway and therefore the role that they play is minimal. If you’re in a middle management position, it could be that this is a fundamental part of the working culture in your company that you cannot change at your level. However, it could also be that this is something you’re reinforcing with your own management style as well, and it’s very hard to understand exactly when and how you cross the line between those two. If you, at the very least, work on your own management style to create the first environment as much as possible, chances are that will have a meaningful impact already.
The second reason is the detailed understanding of what motivates every individual in your team on a personal level. This is where the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation comes into play. Depending on the particular model you’re using (and there are plenty), many researchers have identified a handful of intrinsic motivators (such as mastery, status, curiosity and so on). These are always going to be independent of the culture in your workplace. They’re more like personality traits. For some people, the main thing that motivates them is the feeling that they are masters of their own trade and are great at their job. For others, they need to feel like their colleagues recognise their value and respect them. It’s hard to know your teammates on this level without putting in the conscious effort to do it. It’s even harder to make use of this knowledge when you have it and to try to play to your team’s motivators. This could be setting them up with responsibilities that inherently motivate them or by simply being conscious of it and using it in your own management. For example, if someone is motivated by status, you can already assume that they would likely enjoy additional responsibilities that have an impact on their teammates. If someone is motivated by mastery, you can assume that they might lose motivation if they’re out of their depth for a longer period of time. Equipped with this knowledge, you can ideally set things up in your team so that every person is highly motivated.
There will likely still be limitations depending on your environment, your specific circumstances, and so on. The biggest prerequisite is to consciously work on this and do what you can. Once that is in place and you’re in the habit of thinking about this regularly, you will make progress. Every piece of progress you make will make a huge difference to your team.
Benefits of Motivating Your Team
The benefits of putting effort into this are encapsulated by the anecdote I started with. Motivated employees are going to perform better, across the board. Not only will each individual person feel more drive and productivity because of it, creating an environment that encourages that will push the group performance up even more. Peer pressure is a surprisingly powerful force. There are a lot of people who push themselves much harder than they would otherwise because of the implicit pressure of the group around them. This can be a dangerous, coercive force but, used in the right way, with the right nuances, it can make for a truly fulfilling environment to work in. Improving the motivation across your team will pay off on every level.
At the individual employee level, your team members will be happier, more productive, and more relaxed. This will translate to less stress across your workplace. It will increase the likelihood of people having fun and enjoying themselves. That will in turn increase their creativity, innovation, and ambition.
At the manager level, you will benefit because you are ultimately accountable for your team’s performance and their achievements reflect on you. The higher the level that your team is able to perform at, the better you are doing your job. Your primary goal as a manager should be to enable your team to get things done. The more they get done, the more successful you are. Having a motivated team won’t necessarily immediately translate to a high performing team but it will always lead to a higher level of performance than they would be at if they weren’t motivated.
Whatever your team’s contribution is to the company will show on the company level as well. For example, if you lead a product team, they might create a better product. If you lead a support team, their performance might lead to happier customers. Creating this environment will also translate to higher retention, which will hugely benefit both your team and your company.
Essentially, everyone wins. It’s highly unlikely that trying to work on this could lead to any negative impact at all and the potential for improvement is very high. The question is: how do you get started?
Techniques to Motivate
Establishing Your Leadership Style
The best and easiest way to start is to work on your own leadership style. There’s no shortage of ways you could do this and what exactly your style looks like depends on your own situation and what you aim to achieve. There’s so much to unpack here that I’ve only picked out the aspects of leadership that tie the most into motivation. If you get these down in some way and continuously work to improve them, you will at the very least reduce the likelihood of demotivating your teammates through bad management.
Listening and Caring
One of the most important and meaningful things you can do as a manager is taking the time to listen to your employees’ concerns and worries. Every time you do a one-on-one, you should take this as an opportunity to ask them about what’s going on on their end, if there’s anything they’d like to change, and if you can support them better. Every time you hold a meeting where you announce something or talk about a project, use the opportunity to ask them what they think, what worries them, and what would help them. Spend some time observing your communication in these settings and see how often you do this. It could be that you’re already doing this, which is great! If you aren’t, just start. It is possible to overdo it (don’t ask the same question multiple times, for example).
You want to make sure you do this proactively and consciously on a regular basis so your team knows you’re approachable and care about their problems. This will help with their motivation. After all, this is how you find out what level their motivation is at and whether anything is happening that negatively impacts it in the first place. This is your starting point. I plan on writing a separate article about listening effectively. For now, just remember that you should always react with openness and gratitude. When people bring problems to you or give you feedback, say things like “thank you for bringing this to my attention” or “I know it’s awkward to bring things up like this but I really appreciate you doing it because it’s helpful.” It helps if you reinforce this until your team gets in the habit of doing this on their own.
Empowerment and Delegation
Empowerment and delegation is hard to do right because you can only do it to the extent that your team is able and prepared to handle it. You want to err on the side of delegating to the lowest level that you can, as often as you can, handing over responsibility and empowering your teammates to make decisions about those areas themselves. That said, you have to do this carefully, with guidance and clarity. Let’s say you need to figure out a rotation for a particular task. You can hand that over completely to your team by saying something like: “Please decide amongst each other what the best way to organise this is and then let me know by next week what you’d like to do. If you can’t agree on something, let me know.” Give clear and specific directions, make sure there’s a time frame involved, and an out, in case it doesn’t work out.
When you hand over responsibilities, you should do the same. If you want to work on your delegation, check out my article on delegation for more information about how to do that properly.
The point here isn’t that you have to delegate every decision. That isn’t realistic and most likely won’t actually help with their motivation at all. The point is simply to do it as often as you can. The more opportunities you can provide for people to take ownership of their own tasks, the more they will feel like they have a say. The more empowered they feel to make decisions, the more they’ll feel like trusted and valued employees. This will feed into their motivation and drive.
Direction and Clarity
Direction primarily comes from clear expectations and focus. There are three key parts to achieving this.
The first one is that you should know what you expect from your team members on every level. If you give them a project, you should know what success would look like. When you assess their performance, hopefully regularly, you should know what you consider to be a great employee versus what would constitute a low performing one. The clearer your expectations towards them are for you, the easier it’ll be to express them openly and clearly. Lack of direction can be demotivating because it often leads to a sense of wasted time. It’s a frustrating experience to spend a ton of time on something and then find out that your work will get scrapped because you went in the wrong direction. It’s the same for your team. Preempt this by being as clear as possible, as early as possible.
The second step is clarity. When you know what your expectations are, you need to communicate these explicitly. Ideally, your team members will know what they consider to be a successful day or an amazing performance, which is a good first step. Your job is to make sure that their perceptions and your expectations are as closely aligned as possible. It’s hard for them to know if they’re doing a good job if you don’t communicate what doing a good job looks like. If you ensure you’re both on the same page, they’ll have an easier time fulfilling your expectations and that in and of itself will be a rewarding and motivating experience.
The third part of this is prioritisation. It might sound minor but, especially if you work in a highly complex environment, where there are a lot of competing responsibilities (and always limited resources), you cannot have any direction or clarity without prioritisation. Prioritising well means saying no to some things and focusing on others. Check out my article on focus for some more advice on this. Prioritisation is a fundamental skill that you should build. Ask yourself: of all of the things we are currently doing, what is the most important? What needs to be done first and why? Then make sure these priorities are also clear to your team.
Honesty and Humility
These go hand-in-hand because being honest means being vulnerable and it’s needed to balance out the previous point of providing direction. You need to be decisive while still being open for feedback. You need to be clear while remaining humble and open to changing your mind. Providing direction doesn’t mean sticking to your guns no matter what. You need to temper that by recognising when you make mistakes, by admitting when you don’t know things, and most importantly, by making different decisions if you need to.
There are two main ways to do this and both require consistent self-reflection on a daily basis:
1) Asking for feedback regularly. I wrote about this extensively in my article on encouraging a culture of feedback in your team.
2) Questioning yourself before you question others. For example, if you see someone not performing well, your first instinct should be to ask: “What have I done that’s led to this?” If one of your teammates is demotivated and frustrated, your first thought should be: “How can I make this better?”
This isn’t to say that the fault in every situation lies with you. The point is rather that it’s much easier to change your own behaviour, than it is to change anyone else’s. The most effective way to deal with challenges you face is always to look for how you can improve them. It’s easy to say “my teammate should deal with this problem themselves.” It might even be true. It’s highly unlikely that you carry zero of the responsibility, however, and it’s also unlikely that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to improve the situation.
There are many more aspects to your leadership style that will have an impact here but these are the fundamental ones that you can use as a starting point.
Knowing Their Motivators
The best tool that you, as a manager, have to improve the motivation levels in your team, is actually understanding what motivates every individual you work with. There are many different models and tests that you can use to find these out. Gallup’s StrengthFinder 2.0 is a great one to understand the types of areas that someone excels at and finds fun to do. Moving Motivators by Management 3.0 is another useful tool to help someone talk through and understand the aspects of a job that are important to them personally. Daniel Pink highlights three different, primary motivators in his book Drive. The particular model you use isn’t so important. What matters is that you identify what motivates each individual intrinsically. Using a model like this works as a starting point because it will give your team the language that they need to think about and express what motivates them.
Another tool you can use to understand how someone in your team thinks and feels is regular one-on-ones. You should always spend your first few one-on-ones with someone new getting to know the person. One of the best ways to do this is just asking why they made certain decisions in their life. Why did they pick this particular company or this career? What did they study and what made them choose it? What do they find enjoyable about their current role and what would they like to see more of? The more questions you ask that are tailored around understanding the why behind their decisions, the more deeply you’ll learn what motivates them and what doesn’t. You can use this to start noticing patterns. One-on-ones should help you keep your finger on the pulse of the motivation levels across your team. If you start hearing the same issues raised by multiple people, then that’s a sign that something needs to be addressed.
When you have an idea of what motivates your teammates, it’s very helpful to chart this out. Create a sheet for each person, write down their top three motivators. Then give them a ranking based on how well these motivators are met within their current responsibilities. Afterwards, start brainstorming how you can tap into them. The idea here isn’t to make major changes to their role but rather to tailor their particular responsibilities and your interactions with them so that they have the opportunity to work on projects that would be especially motivating for them.
For example, someone in your team might be motivated by curiosity. What that means in practice is that they like the freedom to experiment with new ideas and different ways of working. Even if you do not delegate a whole new task to them completely, you can assume that they would enjoy being able to act this out. So you can encourage them to take the time to experiment with how they work or with different tools and see if they have any learnings to pass on to your team. This will already make a big difference.
Someone else might be motivated by mastery. They enjoy the feeling that they’re highly skilled at their job. You can help this kind of person identify knowledge gaps that they might have and figure out how to close them in some kind of systematic process. Once these gaps are closed, you can encourage them to create materials to share their new knowledge across the team.
If they’re motivated by status, look for ways to help them specialise. This doesn’t have to be a formally recognised specialisation across your team. It’s enough if there are particular areas of their job that they’re very good at. When they have that, others in the team will go to them to ask questions because their expertise in that area will be known. This is likely to be motivating for them in and of itself. If you do have an opportunity to give them a formally recognised specialisation, they would probably thrive under that (assuming they’re good at the task itself).
It also works the other way round. If you know that they are motivated by feeling like they have a say and their opinions matter, you know they’ll be demotivated by top-down decisions so try to include them in the decision-making process. If someone finds stability and order motivating, you know that change will be very stressful and working in an environment with minimal direction will demotivate them. If someone has growth and development as their key motivator, you know that they will need tasks that facilitate that. Once you have this kind of understanding, you’re able to use these motivators consciously to create the best possible environment for your team.
You will be limited in many ways, of course. It could be that you have certain structures and workflows in place that mean you can’t actually give every team member what they need to thrive. In these cases, you can only do the best that you can and have that conversation openly with every individual.
When you’ve done the first round of brainstorming to see how you can apply your knowledge of their motivators, get started with the first ideas that you had and regularly evaluate how well they’re working. It could be that there are misunderstandings. It could also be that something sounded like a good fit in theory but it doesn’t turn out that way. Revisit these sheets for each individual every 6 months or so. Note down your successes and failures. Then figure out your next steps to continue motivating your team.
Effectively Representing Your Team
These are the stages of representing your team well. When you’re in a middle management position, you’ll often have some issues that you can tackle on your level. Some of the issues that land on your desk, however, will be ones that can only be dealt with on a higher level. Depending on the complexity of your company’s structure, some of those issues might be just one level higher, some might require handling on the highest level, across the whole company. Most of the aspects of a job that either negatively or positively impact someone’s motivation sit on different levels. What you want to do as a manager is improve your own level and then try to influence the level under you (which is the individual level) and the level above you.
Working on your own leadership style is on your management level. Knowing someone’s motivators and using them is trying to influence the individual level. This part is about influencing any of the levels that are higher than yours. The issues that would sit here are likely to be department or company-wide. They can be cultural (for example, implicit pressure to be reachable at all times or a very opaque culture around salary negotiation) or procedural (for example, everyone across the company has to install monitoring software on their devices when they work). They can be large, foundational problems or they can be relatively small issues that simply need discussion and buy-in. Either way, what characterises them is that you cannot solve or even tackle them reasonably by yourself.
So much of good management starts with simply understanding the problem. This can be difficult because, in some cases, people will identify a problem but it will not be the problem that actually matters the most to them.
There was one point of contention that used to come up consistently in one of the first support teams that I managed, which was the structure and content of our knowledge base (otherwise known as a support centre). The knowledge base had been revamped at some point in the near past and the new version was much more concise, covering only the most essential information. The idea behind this was to create something that was easy to maintain, rather than a comprehensive resource that would require intense maintenance effort. To a certain extent, this decision was in conflict with some of the department’s goals, around reducing the demand for support.
This was one of the most unpopular decisions across the department of all time. Even two years after the new knowledge base had been released, there was consistent, repetitive feedback around all of the ways in which it was lacking. The problem might have been the quality of the knowledge base at the beginning and, to hear anyone tell it, it was still the biggest concern of everyone who repeatedly raised it. That said, after two years of this, the actual problem became the fundamental lack of trust in the relationship between management, the people who maintained the knowledge base, and the rest of the department.
The point of all of this is to say: you need to truly, deeply understand the origin of the problem. Resentment like this can build up over a series of small, maybe inconsequential decisions and interactions. You can only start untangling them when you have that understanding. It would’ve been easy to say, simply try to change the decision. But there were reasons behind it that time hadn’t undone. The much more meaningful thing to do would’ve been to work on rebuilding trust between those levels, starting with processes that encourage feedback and transparency. The ultimate goal would be to have more robust relationships in place in which everyone feels heard and respected.
The only real technique there is to achieve this is listening and observing. When you have conversations with people, especially emotionally fraught ones, you need to be careful to not get caught up in having the conversation. Your primary focus should be to ask multiple questions to try to make sense of why someone feels a certain way or where their reaction is coming from. Observation includes everything else around a reaction: their facial expressions, their body language, whether they seem to disengage from a topic or not. All of these are signs. If you take the time to notice them consciously, your ability to read and understand them will improve as well.
When you understand your team’s response to an issue, you have to react to that information somehow. This is where the earlier section around your leadership style comes into play. For example, you need to be upfront if you think an issue isn’t worth escalating. You need to find the right balance between listening to their concerns and using your own judgement to figure out where and how you’ll react to something. You also need to be honest and straightforward when you think a particular issue can’t be fixed.
To take another example that’s fairly typical of a support team, having a mutually useful and productive relationship between support and product often requires conscious effort and work. Most of the support teams I’ve worked with have reported feeling that their feedback isn’t heard or taken into consideration at some point. In every situation, there will have been one event (or multiple events) that led to their perceptions. You as the manager have to sit down and figure out where the actual source of the problem lies. Sometimes that’s been a valid problem that needed addressing with the product or QA team that received the feedback. Sometimes the real problem was that the feedback wasn’t provided by the support team in a way that was understandable or the priority of an issue wasn’t made clear, ie a simple misunderstanding. These are exactly the kinds of distinctions that you need to make directly to your team, so they know that their concerns were fully heard and understood but that you ultimately decided to deal with a situation in a different way.
Your reaction should make it clear that you care and are interested in their feedback, so I can only reiterate how important it is to watch your immediate response. Certain types of feedback will always cause a defensive response. Try to catch yourself and stop that from coming out if you can. You don’t want to brush off their concerns. You simply want to listen, understand, make a decision, and pull it off.
The final part of this is to genuinely advocate for your team. You have two major responsibilities as a manager. One is to your team – to enable them to succeed and perform to the best of their ability. The other responsibility you have is to the company – to enable the company to get the highest possible value it can from your team. In some situations, those two responsibilities will be in conflict. Let’s say the company is a seasonal business and there are certain times of year you can’t afford to allow vacation, even when it would be ideal for your team’s mental health and wellbeing. Or the company might have restrictions on the kinds of developmental opportunities that they would support, so you have to say no to a course that would be personally valuable for someone. The ultimate goal is always to bring these two needs as close to each other as possible, but it’s normal for there to be situations when that doesn’t work out.
Depending on the situation and your own judgement, there will definitely be situations where you need to advocate for your team and their needs. To approach this in the right way, you need to consider the pros and cons of making a decision in either direction and back up your case. You want to look for compromises where you can and suggest solutions that you think could work for both parties. For example, if your team is understaffed, you have to make the case for why you need additional resources and how those resources justify their cost for the company. If your team is struggling to cover a particular task or responsibility because you lack the skills to do it well, you need to look for ways to enable the people in your team to develop those skills. Any of these situations can be demotivating and frustrating. You might not be the person ultimately responsible for making the decision that could resolve that. In these cases, your responsibility is to communicate that need and argue for it.
Once you’ve done that, you also have to let your team know how that discussion went. Knowing that you need to close the feedback loop yourself will not only hold you accountable, it’ll also make it easier for your team to trust you and raise those issues.
Assessing your success
The impact of motivation might be hard to measure empirically. The first KPIs you can look into are the ones you use to measure the performance in your team. Ultimately, these are the KPIs that you’re always trying to improve with every initiative you take on. This could be a quantitative measure (the amount of work done) and a qualitative measure (at which level of quality). If you have any processes in place to measure these already, you should track the difference after a few months of doing the above.
On the behavioral and environmental side, you can extrapolate that motivation will have an influence on aspects like the retention rate within a position, team, or company, or the number of sick days across the team. These are aspects that can be used as larger indicators of employee engagement and general wellbeing but motivation can also reflect on them.
The other part you can look at is the general atmosphere you have at work. If people are happier, more open, grateful, and engaged, that’s a sign that you’re doing something right. Maybe people are more likely to volunteer for tasks now, even when they’re unpopular. Maybe the team manages to get more done without you needing to step in, because they have the motivation and drive to organise themselves on their own. It could be that they show more initiative, have more ideas for how to improve things. Remember that first anecdote at the beginning. The team that’s able to set its own goal and work hard to achieve it is a motivated one. If you see your team having situations like that (or individuals within your team) when they didn’t before, then you’ve made a difference.
To help you implement some of the suggestions above, we plan on creating the following resources:
- An advocacy worksheet to help you identify which issues should be escalated and how you can approach them.
- An overview of suggestions that you could use to motivate your team based on the Moving Motivators model from Management 3.0.
- An overview of situations that would demotivate your team based on the same model.
If any of these sound especially useful to you right now and they haven’t been made available yet, please feel free to reach out to me via email and I’ll do my best to expedite them and let you know personally when they’re ready. As always, if you try any of them out or have any questions or feedback, let us know!