Why You Need to Stop Trying to Motivate Your Team

Apr 13, 2015
3 Min Read

If you’re channeling the Santa Claus all year by constantly passing out goodies to try and motivate your team, you’re taking the wrong approach. Science shows that there is a much more effective way to motivate a team. 

If you’re a leader and trying to motivate your team, you’re wasting your time.

That’s because people are always motivated, and your efforts to motivate them to be more productive or cooperative by offering incentives or rewards just becomes frustrating, demoralizing and stressful for them, contends Susan Fowler.

Fowler, author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work….and What Does,” says that there is a “naïve assumption” that motivation is something a person has or does not have. That wrongheaded thinking is what pushes leaders into believing that they can somehow “make up” for the motivation they believe their team doesn’t have. But research has consistently shown that trying to use “bribes” to motivate people doesn’t work, she says.

Instead, she says that leaders should be considering not if employees are motivated, but why they are motivated.

“The real story of motivation is that people are learners who long to grow, enjoy their work, be productive, make positive contributions, and build lasting relationships,” she writes in the book. “This is not because of motivational forces outside themselves but because it is their human nature.”

Unfortunately, too many leaders don’t believe that and instead try to play Santa for 364 days a year, offering goodies to team members – such as a new title or cash reward – that only de-motivate workers.  The quick fix of such rewards is like junk food – it’s easy and provides instant gratification but is unhealthy in the long run, Fowler says.

“People regard managers who drive for results as self-serving,” she says. “They consider support by these managers to be conditional: if you do as I say, then I will reward you in some way. All the ‘carrots’  actually become a stick, and just add pressure.”

Further, such “conditional support” undermines the need for “relatedness” that people are looking for at work, where they are spending more and more time, she says.

“The rewards become meaningless and people start to feel guilty and stressed about them,” she says.

Fowler says the research on motivation proves that in order to keep workers engaged, leaders must learn that motivation is a skill. Using what she calls the “Optimal Motivation” process, she helps leaders move away from external motivations and instead learn to listen and interact with team members to discover what will be meaningful and sustainable motivation for an individual.

Discovering motivation

Having “outlook conversations” between leaders and workers can help employees understand their own motivations, Fowler explains.

In the book, she shares the technique and real-life “outlook conversations.” For example, she relates a case with Sonny, who in a workshop ranked “money” as his No. 1 motivator. Other group members rated “interesting work” as their primary motivator.

Fowler questioned Sonny about the difference between his motivation and that of other group members.

Fowler: “Why is money what gets you going each day?”

Sonny:  “I just graduated from college and I’m broke. I need money! That’s why I went into sales – to make money.”

Fowler: “That’s understandable. Why is the money so important to you?”

Sonny: “Because I need to buy things!”

Fowler: “Why is buying things so important to you?”

Sonny: “Because I need things, like a new car.”

Fowler: “Why is the new car so important?”

Sonny: “Because the one I have now is old and run down. It doesn’t scream success. I need a new car to impress people.”

Fowler: “Why is it so important for you to impress people?”

Sonny: “Because I want them to see me as successful.”

Fowler: “Why is it so important for people to see you as successful?”

Sonny became emotional, sharing that he was the only person in his family to graduate from college, and his parents had made many sacrifices to pay for his education. Fowler asked him whether his parents supported him in college so he could make lots of money, or if they would be disappointed in him if he didn’t make lots of money.

Fowler said that her questioning helped Sonny learn something about himself. While he did want money and a new car, he worked so hard because he wanted to show gratitude to his parents. This demonstrated his need for relatedness, which is a motivator. He also discovered that what would really make him get out of bed in the morning was meaningful work and his living his values.

“Asking someone – including yourself – the question ‘why’ is a mindfulness tool,” Fowler says. “This shifting technique peels away the layers of distractions and junk-food urges to connect people to the heart of their motivation – their psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence.”

In another case, a man named Simon resented being put in charge of figuring out a scheduling change because he felt he was forced into it, and didn’t think it was part of his job.  Fowler notes that Simon was “reveling in his self-righteous indignation.”

So, Fowler asked Simon to talk about his values. During that conversation, he related that his time outside of work was important and he had experienced his own parents being laid off, despite their years of dedication to their jobs.

But once Fowler asked him to connect the scheduling change with his values, he began to see that it would help things to run more efficiently, which would give him more time outside work. In addition, Simon valued being a team player, so taking on the assignment would help the entire team.

Fowler says any leader can learn such skills to help workers discover their own motivations, and the payoff will lead to greater employee engagement and higher productivity.

Once leaders understand that motivation is a skill that must be customized to meet individual needs, then the organization, the leader and the worker will benefit in “profound” ways, she says.

For a free motivational assessment, check out Fowler’s website.

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