When it comes to motivating teams, there’s so much advice out there, it’s hard to find the motivation to sift through it all.
Does money work, or not? Is it all about public recognition, or how frequently you acknowledge achievement? Intrinsic or extrinsic rewards? Titles and status? Connecting to one’s life purpose? Thank-you cards? Competitions? Employee of the month?
Can someone please tell me how to get the best from my team!
The truth about motivation
I have tough news for you: There is no best way – or even a consistently effective way – to motivate people. In fact, it’s fair to say that you, as a manager, can’t motivate your team.
Wait – what? Isn’t motivating people one of the core competencies of a good manager?
[ Are you over-communicating and not engaging? Read our related story: Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire. ]
Motivation is something we feel, not something someone does to us. This is perhaps why there is so much advice on how to motivate people: None of it works, so we have to keep coming up with new tricks.
Some of them might seem to work – for a while. Some even have neuroscience on their side, invoking neurotransmitters and the like (the famous “dopamine hit” concept, for instance). And here’s the thing: These ideas aren’t wrong, exactly, and the science is certainly real. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that any attempt at making motivation transitive – something another person does to you – also makes it transactional. Here’s an interesting tidbit: Want to make someone less likely to do you a favor? Offer to pay them.
Studies have shown that offering payment (or something of value) in return for a favor actually makes it easier for someone to say no. If I ask you for a ride to the airport, for example, and offer to pay you $20, you are free to say no, because you are saving yourself the effort – and saving me $20. It’s seen as mutually beneficial in some way – even if in the end, I’m left without a ride.
Counterincentives suffer the same pitfall, as shown in this example: A local elementary school recently had a problem – kids were not being picked up on time. So administrators started charging parents a fee for each late pickup, which increased according to how late parents picked up their kids.
Maybe you can guess what happened: Late pick-ups increased. One plausible explanation is that the fee was perceived not as a disincentive, but as a payment for service ($15 an hour is a pretty reasonable rate for short-term childcare).
Even simple praise can backfire. About two-thirds of people say they have experienced a time when praise from their boss actually felt like an insult. Many felt that their boss “didn’t really mean it” or “was just trying to get me to do something.” People see right through superficial attempts to motivate them because they recognize that in those cases “motivate” really means “manipulate.”
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Relationships matter most
So, is it hopeless? Of course not. The truth is we do things for people we care about and who care about us because it feels good to do so. We enjoy providing relief, pleasure, and joy to those we value because it adds value to the shared relationship overall. It strengthens the bond we feel with others, which is much more powerful than any simple transactional exchange between individuals. We are naturally motivated to do things that add to the relationships we value.
How do you create such a bond? Honesty, respect, and transparency are important, but they aren’t the whole story. True connection requires a fundamental acknowledgment of each person’s equal humanity and value. It requires vulnerability and recognition that each side values and cares about the other.
Organizational hierarchies are in reality fictitious. They exist to support effective functioning within the context of workplace roles and responsibilities, but they do not address the relative value or merit of the human beings involved.
That may be the clearest reason that so many motivational techniques don’t work: They emphasize a power differential that denies basic human relationships, which turns value creation into value exchange – the definition of a transactional relationship. To form a true human connection, both parties must actively seek to discard this notion.
Ultimately, the best advice for leading a motivated team is simply this: Know your team members as people and let them know you. That doesn’t mean you need to be everyone’s best friend, but mutually valued human connections are satisfying for many reasons, and we want to do things that keep them in place and make them stronger.
No formulas, no tricks, no sure-fire secrets – just human relationships that are based on mutual respect and accountability rather than transactional or power-driven dynamics.
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