How to motivate employees? Don’t.

Do this instead. Here are 6 ways to motivate your team that doesn’t undermine their intrinsic employee motivation that they already have.

I need to figure out how to motivate my employees.” When was the last time thought that to yourself? It could’ve been the other week when you noticed one of your direct reports dragging his feet on a project that’s critical to the company. Or, perhaps it was the other month when you felt frustrated that your team wasn’t being proactive about addressing customer issues.

If either of these situations feels even remotely familiar, you’re not alone. I hear this sentiment of “how to motivate employees” frequently from managers we work with who use Know Your Team, and I often am asked countless questions about it.

We, as leaders, are not the only ones thinking this. Employees themselves admit that they don’t feel as motivated at work as they’d like. According to Gallup, only 2 in 10 employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.

However, this question of, “How to motivate my employees as a manager?” is a misguided one. It implies that motivation is something we give another person. That’s patently false.

Motivation is not a thing we give to people — motivation is a thing people already have. Employees inherently have energy, ideas, gifts, and talents that are worth being shared with the world. We, as leaders, simply need to get out of their way and create a space for that energy, ideas, gifts, and talents to thrive.

The question we should ask ourselves isn’t, “How can I motivate my team?” but rather, “How can I create an environment for my team members to motivate themselves?”

I’ve been thinking about the answer to this question for the past almost ten years :-). From research we’ve gathered across the years, conversations with leaders who we admire on our podcast, and insights from 1,000+ managers from our online community, The Watercooler, here are six things we can do as leaders to create the conditions for employees to motivate themselves.

Immerse yourself in discovery.

You can’t enable another person’s motivation to flourish if you don’t know what motivates them, to begin with. As a result, a key part of effectively creating the conditions for strong employee motivation in your team is to figure out: Well, what motivates them?

Hopefully, you’ve got a sense of this when you were hiring them — as the interview process is very much about understanding what drives a person. However, if it still remains fuzzy, here are some questions you’ll want to ask during your next one-on-one meeting to figure out, at their core, what your team member is motivated by:

  • When has it been a time when you’ve felt most motivated in the work that you were doing? Why? What project was it? Who were you working with?
  • What three events in your life would you say have had the biggest impact on you and why?
  • Who do you admire most in your life, and why?
  • What’s the dream?
  • What would you want to say is true about your life five years from now for it to feel meaningful? Ten years from now?
  • What would you say most deeply motivates you?

Now, with some of these questions, you may be thinking, “Woah Claire, this is just way too much — I can’t just ask these during a one-on-one meeting.” You might be right. If you’ve never asked questions of this tone before, it’ll likely be a surprise to your direct report. Thus, if you do decide to ask these questions, let your direct report know ahead of time. You can say something like, “I’d love to discuss broader, deeper life questions during our next one-on-one,” and you can also share an agenda ahead of time. (In fact, you can do this, with our One-on-Ones tool in Know Your Team.)

You’ll also want to continue to ask these questions as you continue to work with this person over time. Discovery of motivation is not a one-time, one-off occurrence — it’s an ongoing, consistent practice.

Individualize everything.

Motivation is personal. What motivates one person might not motivate someone else. As a result, it’s important to have nuance in the conditions you create for motivation to grow — you need to individualize those conditions as much as you can. This means specifically aligning projects, goals, and incentives with what the other person is motivated by, and no one else. This seems intuitive, yet we often unintentionally (or completely unknowingly) project our own preferences and proclivities onto another person. For example, because you find detail-oriented work very easy, you might assume the other person does as well, and you proceed to hand off a very data-focused, detail-oriented project to them. Then, you notice that they’re not motivated on the project and seem to be struggling, you wonder, “Hmm why aren’t they really stepping into it?” When you consider the individual nature of motivation, the answer becomes obvious: It was a mismatch of aligning the project to what motivates that person the most.

However, sometimes, there are projects that have to get done and goals that have to get met — and you can’t customize or individualize them. What do you do in these scenarios? Read on.

Create a choice.

While you can’t always individualize and perfectly match someone’s project and goals with what they are most motivated by, you can create positive conditions for motivation by enabling choice in what people can do. In Edward Deci’s seminal book on human motivation theory, Why We Do What We Do, he describes how “meaningful choice engenders willingness” and results in a higher quality of decisions, and greater motivation and commitment to the task, all shown in research he’s done over 20 years.

For example, while someone may not be able to choose their project, you can give them a choice in how they want to approach the project. Or in another situation, instead of assigning someone a set of goals, you can invite them to participate in the formation of those goals and enable them to choose it. As detailed by Deci, studies have shown that when people can actively choose their own goals, they’re more likely to follow through on them.

Stop surveillance.

What damages the conditions for motivation the most? Surveillance has been revealed in studies to negatively impact intrinsic motivation. Anytime you catch yourself peeking over someone’s shoulder, making a mental note of what time they log on or log off, or when they enter the office — you’re not helping. You’re hurting.

Additionally, consider how deadlines and imposed goals undermine intrinsic motivation and negatively affect performance. Are you arbitrarily setting targets to create an artificial sense of “urgency” or “accountability”? Or are you trying to create a supportive environment that is truly helpful for a person getting to where they need to be?

Acknowledge constraints and feelings.

Sometimes you can’t create a good environment for motivation. The company is tight on resources, or there’s a toxic person who’s dragging the team down but you don’t have the authority to let that person go. When you know that prime conditions for strong motivation aren’t there, recognize that. Share with your team, “Here’s why I know that sucks” or “I so appreciate you bearing with this” and you demonstrate how much you understand their point of view.

Deci described in his research how this sharing of the rationale behind why things are constraining or not feeling good helps to minimize the pressure that detracts from performance. Acknowledging the bad helps clear room for someone to try to do good.

Clarify expectations.

On occasion, our team doesn’t seem motivated because their behavior doesn’t match up with our own conception of what “highly motivated” looks like in our heads. In short, we as leaders haven’t made clear what the real output of strong motivation looks like in our team. Does it mean that people are moving faster? Does it mean a higher quality of work? Once you’ve determined what the product of “stronger motivation” looks like, then consider: How well have you communicated this to your team? Do they know and are they aware that is the output and product they should be creating?

I recently interviewed Tim O’Reilly, founder, and CEO of O’Reilly Media, on our podcast, The Heartbeat (the full episode is here if you were curious). During our chat, he cited a quote from Edwin Schlossberg: “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” Tim asserted how applicable this quote was to leadership, as well, saying:

“In some sense, in leadership, what you are trying to do is to create a context in which other people can act.”

This rings resoundingly true for employee motivation. As a leader, when you’re trying to figure out how to motivate employees, what you’re truly trying to do is create a context in which they can act. You’re creating an environment for your team to motivate themselves.

Start with these six recommendations. You can create this context as a leader, yourself.

✨ You may be thinking: “Well, what else can I do to better create a context for my team to act, as Tim O’Reilly suggested?” Well, you can start by checking out Know Your Team — a tool for managers to help create a better context for their teams. We give you the tools to run one-on-one meetings, share team progress. get honest feedback, and build rapportLearn more about how Know Your Team can help support you as a manager here.

Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you avoid becoming a bad boss. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

4 thoughts on “How to motivate employees? Don’t.

  1. This is smart because extrinsic motivation is short-lived. It’s like the carrot and stick method. Tap into what internally motivates a person and they’ll work hard period. Nice stuff Claire!

  2. Love your content.
    I have found, though, very small typo mistakes. No compromise to the overall meaning.

    1. motivation a thing people already have. -> motivation ‘is’ a thing

    2. I’ve been thinking about the answer to this question for the past almost ten years From -> “From is in uppercase and there are two spaces before it. Shouldn’t it have a dot before?”

    2. Why we do want we do -> Why we do ‘what’ we do

    **Please erase my comment**
    I always to this on texts I read, because I know how revision is hard. And if they don’t make sense, please, disconsider.

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