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LEADING OTHERS: Motivating Others

One of a leader's primary responsibilities is to motivate others to achieve shared goals. Doing so requires both awareness of what people most desire from their jobs as well as of the levers that one can use to channel those desires into the effort needed for success.

What do we mean by "motivation"?

Motivation is the impulse to act, or the reason that explains our decisions and behavior as we strive to achieve a goal. It can be extrinsic, which means doing something in response to a desired outcome separate from oneself (e.g., earning an incentive). Motivation can also be intrinsic, which means doing something because you find it interesting, it brings enjoyment, or is satisfying for its own sake.

Both types of motivation can be effective depending on the individual and the situation. However, studies show that intrinsic motivators can lead to more sustainable and effective effort than extrinsic ones. This is because they can build a longer-term commitment to a team or organization and its goals; the rewards are self-sustaining because they do not depend on someone else to supply them. Extrinsic motivators, on the other hand, can be effective in directing behavior toward a specific outcome or achieving compliance. However, when the incentive disappears, so does the motivation.

Which type of motivation should I use?

Knowing how to motivate your team requires an awareness of what is important to each individual. The best way to learn this is to have a direct conversation about preferences, but you can also learn from observing actual behavior in response to different types of incentives. While financial rewards may be most important to some, others may instead be seeking more satisfying work assignments. The use of extrinsic motivators, especially financial ones, raises issues of equity and fairness with which managers should be concerned. They often have more discretion to use intrinsic motivators, which typically come at no additional cost and differential treatment is more easily justified based on individual needs.

How do I use extrinsic motivators?

Extrinsic motivation can come from financial or non-financial incentives. Receiving them provides not only the reward itself but also makes the recipient feel good about themselves.

Extrinsic motivators can be effective when they are tied to performance goals. While they can spur effort, since they recognize past achievement, the effect can wear off once the goal is achieved. Additional motivation thus relies on new extrinsic incentives. This makes setting performance targets important. Setting the bar too low risks foregoing the efforts that someone otherwise might have made to achieve a higher one.

Another type of extrinsic motivator is the threat of punishment. In the extreme, this can mean termination, but written warnings, being skipped over for a bonus or promotion or losing a desirable assignment can also fall in this category. Performing to avoid punishment often results in the minimum being achieved, and such threats can inhibit risk-taking and innovation. However, a few recent studies suggest that negative incentives may be more effective with younger employees (i.e., those under 35) whose needs to avoid bad consequences can be a more powerful incentive than the expectation of a reward.

How do I use intrinsic motivators?

Intrinsic motivators come from the nature of the work itself as well as the social interactions that it involves. Examples of intrinsic motivation include:

Effectively using intrinsic motivators often involves focusing on the context in which an individual performs. Providing work that is engaging and meaningful because it is tied to a valued goal or creates a sense of accomplishment when completed requires thinking about task assignments and job responsibilities. The same is true of creating opportunities for someone to experience intellectual challenges.

One approach to doing this is using the position description to design a job that contains opportunities for intrinsic motivation. Another is to use coaching and performance review sessions to identify ways work assignments can be adjusted while still accommodating the tasks that need to be done. A third consideration is your own approach to overseeing the employee; for instance, giving someone more autonomy typically means being less hands-on and directive.

How can I determine the types of motivators that might work best for each individual?

Using a Motivation Survey is a useful tool to gauge how much employees value different types of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. The results can be used on an individual basis to inform how a manager works with his/her team members. They can also be helpful as an aggregate measure to indicate areas to which a manager should devote more effort or adjust her style of management.

The following is a quick summary of the main areas of motivation and a guide to the specific tools you can use for each.

Providing Productive and Challenging Work

The first step in building a highly motivated team is providing interesting work, which is well organized to meet the needs and desires of team members. No matter how self-motivated a person is, how challenging the goals he or she sets, or how wonderful the rewards, if the work is badly designed, it will be hard to motivate people and work will be less than ideal.

Effective motivators understand that work design has a strong impact on performance. When a person finds a job inherently unsatisfying, there's not much you can do to motivate him or her. Job design and enrichment combine to match characteristics of the job with workers' skills and interests: The more variety, challenge, and autonomy there is to a job, the more intrinsically satisfying it will be.

Setting Effective Goals

When you are confident that the work you provide is well organized, the next thing to do is to ensure that workers have clear and attainable goals that they're working to achieve. Managing the goal-setting process is essential for creating a highly motivating environment. The effectiveness of goal setting in motivation is a well-recognized fact, and by making goals specific, consistent, and appropriately challenging, you can set goals that are powerfully motivating. As such, the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) acronym helps you define effective goals.

Specific goals are measurable, unambiguous and behavior-changing. They outline exactly what needs to be accomplished, and when it will be considered as "achieved." Having goals that are consistent with other personal goals as well as organizational goals is also important. If goals are inconsistent, the resulting confusion and incompatibility would likely cause the person to do nothing rather than work in different directions.

Finally, challenge is important, due to the observation that we get what we expect. Up to a point, the more you expect from someone, the harder they will generally work. This has been shown time and time again and is explained by the idea of Expectancy Theory: the idea here is that you need to link high effort with high performance, and high performance with a positive outcome. With those two linkages established, people are motivated to work hard to achieve a positive outcome.


Think carefully about the goals you set, and make sure you adapt them to circumstances in a reasonable way. If you're too rigid with your goals, you may motivate members of your team to "cut corners" in order to reach them.

Understanding Individual Differences in Motivation

Motivational techniques should bring out the best in people. That means they should build on an individual's strengths and minimize his or her weaknesses.

There are certainly some common denominators in motivation, like fair wages, decent working conditions, a sense of camaraderie with co-workers, and a good relationship with one’s supervisor. Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg are two famous motivation theorists who established that even if these sorts of things are not necessarily motivating in themselves, they have to be present in order to even think about enhancing motivation.

However, the assumption in most modern workplaces is that these lower order, "hygiene" factors are being met and that people are seeking the things that provide real motivation. These are things like challenging work, control, growth opportunities, and recognition for a job well done.

To decide which motivating factors to provide you need to look at the individual employees. Some will be motivated by more time off, while others may prefer to gain status and recognition in the company. Understanding these individual needs is mandatory for building a motivating workplace. If you try to motivate everyone in exactly the same way, you're likely missing plenty of opportunities for motivating individual members of your team.

Providing Rewards and Recognition

When you know what you want to provide in terms of reward and recognition, it's important to establish an effective system. The primary focus of a reward system is fairness. Both reward and discipline have to be perceived as fairly distributed according to clear guidelines. This is why setting specific performance expectations is so important ("Fairness" doesn't mean that everyone has the same reward package – it means that differences between people's reward packages need to be clear and understandable.)

It is equally important to make sure you give your team members the tools they need to be successful. If you're setting goals, then you need to make sure that they are attainable. This is done by providing the necessary support, tools, resources, and training.

It's also important that you understand the challenges your team faces. This way you can appreciate the small victories that lead to major accomplishments. Motivation is all about encouragement and appreciation.

When you are part of the team and not simply an "observer from above" you will have many opportunities to thank people and recognize good work right on the spot. This is a very important factor in successful recognition. You have to be in a position to show or tell people every day that you appreciate their contributions. Once or twice a year in a formal review process is not enough!

Key Points

If you want to build a high-performance team, then you absolutely have to learn how to motivate team members. Side benefits of this include high levels of team-member job satisfaction and good staff retention.

You can stimulate high performance by providing interesting and challenging work, helping people set and achieve meaningful goals, and recognizing and rewarding high performance in ways that are valued by each individual.

Making a point of motivating people is a challenge in and of itself. Once you decide you are up to it, however, you too will reap the rewards and benefits. This creates a momentum that will help you and your team achieve great success.

Source and inspiration: University of Colorado and Harvard University.


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