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Developing and maintaining the motivation of members of your team is perhaps one of the most important skills of leaders and managers.

Customer Service People

After all, leaders and managers only achieve through the efforts of others. And (we) know from our own experiences that the level of performance we achieve depends on our inner drive each day to overcome the obstacles that get between us and our goals. This is as true for the new starter in the mailroom as it is for the CEO of a global corporation.

We may have personal experience of both great motivational leadership and not-so-great leadership – or worse. So, what is it that great motivators do? While a lot has been written on the subject and there are many acclaimed gurus, here are a few simple ideas that can help any leader unlock the power of motivation.

2 Key starting points to staff motivation and how to capitalize on it

These ideas flow from two starting points:

Firstly, there are a range of different factors that determine how someone is motivated. They can be grouped broadly into three areas: rational factors, emotional factors and fundamental work related needs

Secondly, every person is unique. So the specific factor or group of factors that determine how an individual is motivated have to be understood – and these can change over time.

Rational factors in employee motivation

The main group of motivating factors are rational. Essentially these are the individual’s needs and preferences. They are often considered more tangible and objective than emotional factors.

Rational factors include:

  • Money – the individual considers that they are well-paid. Money may simply be the hourly or weekly wage, the availability of regular over-time, or the total remuneration including bonus, superannuation and other benefits.
  • Security of income. In this case, an individual accepts a lower level of pay for a higher level of certainty that they will continue to be paid into the future. This could include a preference for a defined salary over a less certain commission or bonus. Or it could be a job in a company or division with low staff turn-over versus a company with a “high and fire” culture or short term contracts.
  • Potential for development and progression. An individual may also be willing to accept a lower level of pay for a period of time, if the prospects for learning & development or future progression are better. This can often be an important motivating factor for someone early in their career. It can also be a reason why someone leaves a smaller company where there are fewer management levels or possibilities for progression, for a bigger enterprise. The potential for exposure to different cultures and countries is also sometimes a reason why an individual will elect to join a local division of a multi-national company compared with joining a purely local or regional business.

Rational and emotional factors are in action at the same time, and can be aligned or in conflict with each other. Life events for an individual can also change the balance of motivations, as the following example demonstrates.

A tradesman who had worked for 10 years with the company he joined on leaving school one day approached the owner, his boss, to tell him he was resigning. The boss was surprised. Sure the firm had been reducing hours of work due to a flat order book, but the key employees had been protected from lay-offs and there was good team spirit. Productivity and product quality were great. What had happened?

The tradesman explained that he had just got married and he and his wife wanted to save the deposit for a house before they had a family. Another firm across town in a different industry sector was booming, putting on double shifts with a lot of overtime. While the tradesman felt bad, given his loyalty to the boss who had given him his first job and protected his position, and his team mates – many of who were friends and hung out together at weekends, his family situation and the need to save more money swayed the decision to leave. In this case the rational motivations were stronger than the emotional.

Emotional factors in employee motivation

We’ve probably heard someone say, or even said ourselves, “I love my job” or “I am part of a great team”. This sense of emotional attachment –passion/commitment – may also find other forms of expression including loyalty or a sense of belonging.

Emotional motivation can have one or more objects. For example, we may love:

  • The job itself
  • The boss – which could be the direct supervisor or manager, or an inspirational leader further up the organisation’s hierarchy
  • The team – again, this could be the immediate work team, the wider department or even the function or division, in the case of a larger company; or
  • The company itself.

Conversely, negative emotions may be involved: “I hate my job” or “I love my job, but my boss is a nightmare”. Just as human emotions are complex and change with time, so too the emotional factors at play in determining one’s motivation are complex and dynamic.

Many people are not always explicit or open about their emotional drivers. Often, however, clues emerge in conversations and discussion. Most people will engage when you show a genuine interest in them and how they are feeling.

The correct assessment of the identity and strength of emotional attachment can be critical in getting the most out of someone.

What you can do about employee motivation

In one case example, a high-performing employee, expert in a skill area that was critical to their team and highly loyal to their company for over a decade, suffered deterioration in their performance shortly after a new manager took charge of the team. It emerged that they just could not get along with the new boss – there was “bad chemistry” – and that was directly impacting motivation and performance. Faced with deteriorating team performance; both management and the individual faced a number of choices: They could:

  • Do nothing, accepting lower motivation and performance, with negative implications for the team and the business results
  • Invest in coaching to help the manager and expert employee figure out how to develop their relationship so that de-motivating factors are removed or minimised
  • Move the team member to another team, where there can have a better relationship with their boss, or
  • Change the unit manager.

It is not the purpose of this brief to prescribe what actions are most appropriate in a given situation, because in practice, many other factors have to be taken into account.

A second example illustrates this point. In a professional services firm, professional standards and organisational culture and values moderate the negative impact of a lack of “love” or “chemistry” between a team member and a team leader. In this firm, new starters and team leaders are given comprehensive training in behavioural expectations, team dynamics and ‘360 degree’ feedback. The firm’s business model requires teams of individuals, who often have not worked together previously, to quickly form high performance client service teams. The teams then disband at the end of the projects, which typically last between one and six months. So the potential impacts of demotivation between individuals and team leaders are mitigated by both training and the short term nature of a project.

Tony High is the Director of Predictive Insight Pty Ltd. With a BA in Education and a Dip. Teaching, he is also a Certified Facilitator for Predictive Index®.  Tony’s passion is to assist individuals, teams and organisations to improve the quality of their performance and their workplace relationships. Tony lives in Sydney, but travels extensively to work with clients around Australia and Asia. A father of 4 young children, he has also turned his hand to playing bass guitar in a band, coaching his son’s junior rugby team and keeps fit so he can compete in the occasional Iron Man event.

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