Motivating People to Excellence as a Manager

December 12, 2023

Working with a motivated team is crucial for success.

These are the teams that everyone always wants to be a part of.

Motivated employees are more productive, happier, and more relaxed, leading to a less stressful and more enjoyable work environment. They achieve higher performance levels, which reflects positively on the manager’s leadership skills.

It also benefits the company as a whole, leading to better products, happier customers, and higher employee retention.

How to motivate employees (without money)

Establishing a people-first leadership style

The best and easiest way to start is to work on your own leadership style.

In practice that means:

  • Listening and caring: Take time to listen to your employees’ concerns and worries. React with openness and gratitude when people bring problems to you. Reinforce this until your team gets in the habit of doing this on their own.
  • Empowering and delegating: Delegate tasks to the lowest level possible. Provide clear directions, make sure there’s a time frame involved, and an out, in case it doesn’t work out. The goal is to provide opportunities for people to take ownership of their own tasks and feel empowered to make decisions.
  • Provide direction and clarity: Have clear expectations for your team members on every level. Communicate your expectations explicitly. Ensure that your team’s perceptions and your expectations are as closely aligned as possible. Prioritize well, meaning saying no to some things and focusing on others.
  • Be honest and humble: Be honest and vulnerable in your leadership. Be open to feedback and changing your mind. Question yourself before you question others. Look for ways to improve the situation, even if not solely your fault.

Recognise intrinsic motivators

Knowing their motivators

The best tool that you, as a manager, have to improve the motivation levels in your team is understanding what motivates every individual you work with.

There are many different models and tests that you can use to find these out.

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.

One-on-one meetings provide an invaluable opportunity to delve into the motivations and perspectives of your team members. These meetings should be more than just performance reviews; they should be structured to foster open dialogue and build rapport. During these interactions, ask open-ended questions about their career goals, interests, and what they find fulfilling in their current role.

Take the time to understand their motivations behind their decisions, such as why they chose their current career path or their reasons for joining the company. By exploring these personal narratives, you can gain valuable insights into their intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

Using motivators

Once you have a grasp of your team’s motivators, you can begin to create a work environment that aligns with their individual needs. This may involve tailoring responsibilities, providing opportunities for growth and development, or offering incentives that resonate with their intrinsic or extrinsic drivers.

For instance, if an employee is motivated by curiosity, encourage them to explore new ideas, experiment with different approaches, and share their learnings with the team. For those driven by mastery, provide opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills through training, mentorship, or participation in challenging projects.

If status is a key motivator, recognize their expertise and contributions by assigning them leadership roles or allowing them to present their work to senior management. Similarly, if an employee thrives on autonomy, provide them with the flexibility to manage their own projects and make decisions within their area of expertise.

Employee motivation is not a static concept; it can evolve over time as individuals grow and their priorities shift.

That’s why it’s good to regularly evaluate the effectiveness of your motivational strategies and adapt them accordingly.

Revisit your team members’ motivational profiles every six months or so to assess the impact of your interventions and identify any areas for improvement.

Use this feedback to refine your approach and ensure that you are continuing to meet the evolving needs of your team.

Become your team’s biggest advocate

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.

Understand their perspective

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.

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.

After two years of this feedback, 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.

Tackling the root cause of the problem is the only way to solve this:

  • Resentment like this can build up over a series of small, maybe inconsequential decisions and interactions.
  • The more meaningful solution now isn’t to go back on the decision but to work on rebuilding trust between these levels, starting with processes to encourage feedback and transparency.
  • The 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.

Address the problem

When you understand your team’s response to an issue, you have to react to that information somehow. That might look different, depending on the situation:

  • 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.

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.

Advocate directly

The final part of this is to genuinely advocate for your team.

You have two major responsibilities as a manager.

  1. One is to your team, to enable them to succeed and perform to the best of their ability.
  2. 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 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.

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.

Act as one team

Understanding and utilizing employee motivators is a continuous process that requires dedication, empathy, and a willingness to adapt.

By investing the time and effort to understand what makes your team members tick, you can create a work environment that fosters engagement, productivity, and overall employee satisfaction, ultimately contributing to the success of your organization.


delegation, direction, feedback, leadership, listening, motivation, motivators

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