Motivation’s a tricky thing. We often imagine that it’s prompted by external rewards or punishments (in fact, the whole conditioning theory of psychology is based on this idea), but in fact motivation isn’t just a response to external stimuli. Motivation really takes hold when we internalize those goals — when they become a part of us. Carrots and sticks are nice, but for motivation to last, it has to become internal.
As an employer or team leader, your goal is always to thread this needle: Motivating your team so they want to do good work. Prizes and rewards can help, but the goal is always to make employees feel like their work matters to them. Here are some ideas:
1. Ask Them
Ah, the number-one rule of motivating your team: Ask your employees! This can save you lots of hand-wringing and calculation.
Just ask, “What would motivate you to finish a particular project, or to do particularly good work?”
You can pose the question to individual employees or to groups. This does three things. First, it lets employees know that you’re interested in hearing what they have to say. Second, it creates an implicit contract: If you give employees (some of) what they ask for, they’re now somewhat obligated to give you what they promised.
Third, someone can suggest something unique you never would've considered, and you can carry that with you from team to team.
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2. Don’t Micromanage
Studies show that employees like to be pointed in the right direction, but after this, prefer to be given autonomy to accomplish their jobs in the way they know how. This expertise is what you hired them for, right?
As a manager, it can be very tempting to tell employees how to do their jobs, or to have them do those jobs the way you’d do them. But doing this makes people less excited to work, and leaves no room for them to figure out potentially better ways of doing things. (Or even ways of doing things that are better for particular employees.)
3. Admit When You Don’t Have the Answer
It’s tough to do, but great for employees to see: Admit that you don’t have all the answers. At worst, it tells employees that your opinions aren’t fixed in stone. At best, it gets them involved in the decision-making process.
This isn’t, of course, license to never make a decision. We’re not telling you to be lazy or to not do your job. If your job is to have the answer, you still need to find it. But acknowledging that you, too, need to improve at your job is a great way to make employees feel like their input actually counts.
4. Encourage People to Take Time Off
These days, it can seem like the ideal image of the American employee is someone who works 20 hours a day, relentlessly pursuing their dream.
Now this model may work for a select few. A very select few. The rest of us tend to do better when we’re fresh and healthy — when we’re actually energized, not just when we’re running on fumes.
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Having time to refresh and regenerate — time away from the job — is key to this.
At lots of workplaces, taking time off is frowned upon. Turns out, this ends up making people less productive.
So don’t make this your workplace! Encourage your employees to use their time off and to do fun things with it. They’ll come back more excited to work, and will appreciate that you care about them as people, not just workers.
5. Don’t Reward Things People Are Already Excited About
Here’s a funny finding: If you expand the reward for things that people are already excited to do, they feel less motivated than they did before. This seems strange, but it actually validates the idea that internal motivation ultimately matters more than rewards do.
So if you’re using rewards of any sort, make sure they’re for things your employees might not be excited about doing. Maybe it’s that annoying paperwork people hate doing. Maybe it’s mandated meetings. Perhaps it's filling out that weekly timesheet. Whatever it is, if you start offering rewards for doing these things, you’ll make it more fun for employees to do them, without lowering their motivation for things they’re already good at.
6. Cultivate Peer-to-Peer Recognition
As we all know, it’s often our peers that have the greatest effect on how hard we work. If they’re going to appreciate us, we do more to solicit their approval. If not, we slack off.
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This is why the one of the best things you can do to start motivating your team is to cultivate an atmosphere in which employees praise and encourage one another. Have meetings in which employees have to say something that other people did well.
Allow employees to nominate their colleagues to receive small prizes for good work. You can even corral an employee and tell her that you’d like to praise her colleague, but it’d be better if the praise came from her, rather than from you.
Ever notice how the most successful sports teams always seem to be those where the players enjoy playing with one another? Cultivate a work culture that captures this feeling, and you’ll see motivation explode.