IT leadership: 3 counterintuitive tips to motivate teams

Think you know how to motivate your team? You might be surprised. Consider this advice on what inspires people to work hard
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Throw out everything you think you know about motivation. The following advice may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve seen it work over many years.

1. Set the bar high

It’s not enough to gather a team of smart, talented people and build a culture of empowerment. You need to give them big, challenging goals and create an environment in which motivated people thrive.

Conventional wisdom says to set short-term, low goals, especially for new team members: Give them little projects where they can’t do any harm to the company, the thinking goes, and they will get a little confidence boost by completing them.

In contrast, I believe that lasting motivation comes from much more than a little confidence boost. Big goals and projects that are difficult to complete stretch a person to their limit. And completing them generates a sense of great pride that comes from that very same well from which motivation springs. No amount of external praise can compete with the feeling you get when you’ve completed a difficult task and you’ve done it well.

No amount of external praise can compete with the feeling you get when you’ve completed a difficult task and you’ve done it well.

Challenge your team members to see that life is a marathon, not a sprint. A series of continuous challenges helps a person grow professionally and personally, so consider switching employees between roles on a regular basis.

When you put the development team on the front line in the support department, for example, everyone benefits. Development team members will see the core product in a completely new way: If they hear something a few times, they should listen; if they hear something over and over again, it’s time to act. Support will learn from development and vice versa. And as a result, customers will get the best support possible and products that perfectly match their needs.

At Oro, our customer and partner support team includes employees who rotate in from the core product project team. This rotation keeps everyone challenged. Everyone goes outside their comfort zone and as people work together, they build lines of communication. We keep the structure as flat as possible so everyone can easily reach out to each other.

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Conventional wisdom says to play it safe and allow only senior staff members to influence the core product or contribute to the company’s direction. Our approach is different. It’s about challenging people at all levels.

A caveat: Coupling ultimate freedom with ambitious work goals does not work for everyone. We’ve had people join our team only to leave after less than a week. Being challenged and pushed but not controlled isn’t for everyone. Those who find it unsettling leave – and that’s okay.

2. If you love them, let them go

Surround yourself with smart, talented people. Then give them absolute freedom.

Love your people, and don’t try to buy their love or loyalty in return. Chef-prepared meals and massages don’t motivate people. Believe it or not, above-market-average salaries won’t do it, either.

What does motivate? Letting people feel and share the responsibility for the company’s success. That feeling of responsibility encourages people to share and openly promote new ideas.

Freedom is more than liberating – it’s motivating. At Oro, nobody controls when you start your day, when you finish, or how much time you spend drinking coffee and procrastinating. What my leadership team cares about is how you are progressing with the project you have been trusted to deliver.

Allow people to experiment and let them own their work. If someone comes to you with an idea, give them the freedom to explore it. If it turns out to be a great improvement, then make it a priority. If not, take the time to explain why it didn’t work out. How you say no is more important than how you say yes.

Allow people to experiment and let them own their work. If someone comes to you with an idea, give them the freedom to explore it.

When you give people this kind of freedom, they will stay with your team. They know that if they see a better way to do things, they can speak up and freely provide feedback because they know they will be heard, their ideas will be taken seriously, and they’ll get a direct and honest response. Their internal motivation arises from their care for the company and their dedication to the shared vision.

Let go of data silos and information fiefdoms. At Oro, every employee sees the quarterly financial reports. Seeing how your own productivity and creativity impacts the bottom line is also highly motivating. Information is power, and a motivated team member wants the power to achieve their goals.

Remember that all work and no play is not healthy – so encourage your team members to take time off. If you’re firm on goals and flexible about deadlines, you’ll find that people will deliver.

And when a valued team member feels it’s time to move on or take advantage of a new opportunity, wish them well. Don’t cling or try to entice them to stay – instead, focus your energy on the people who want to be with you. Bid a fond farewell and a heartfelt good luck to those who are ready to move on.

3. Exude confidence and humility

The humble leader isn’t an oxymoron. Like the servant leader, the humble leader serves their followers.

Report to your employees the way you expect them to report to you. Share the ins and outs and provide transparency, not secrecy. This is easier when you keep your company as flat as possible: Institute a hierarchical management structure and you’ll end up with a bunch of bosses. You don’t want bosses; you want leaders. And you don’t motivate leaders; you get out of their way.

Flat structures also help to keep your ego in check: The minute you think you are too good to listen to your people, your company is done. It’s just a matter of time before you shut the doors.

Exude confidence and look within. Find what you do well and fix what you do badly. And if you can’t fix it yourself, ask someone to help you. Remember that others make you better. When you are open to feedback and criticism, those around you will be open to it as well.

I learned this lesson through the process of creating companies built around open source code. A community makes everyone better – leadership and team members alike. That’s how you build your confidence as a leader.

Everyone thrives in an atmosphere of openness, equality, and sharing. When you are open and treat people as equals, you’ll naturally find a sense of humility.

Stop thinking that it’s in your power to motivate a person. It’s not. What is in your power is the ability to create an environment where motivated people thrive.

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Yoav Kutner is a Founder and CEO of Oro, Inc. Yoav is a proven product visionary in the business application market. Yoav received a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science from UCLA.