Is it possible to motivate people – really?

This is something I ask participants early on in our ‘How to motivate people’ workshop (which opens our pop-up summer school), as it just might be a bit of a misnomer. Can you motivate people – really?

OK, it’s a bit of a trick question, rather like, ‘can you manage time?’ We can manage a whole heap of things to better utilise our previous time, but manage time? Nope. 60 seconds from now, we’ll all be another minute older. It’s more about managing ourselves, our work, and our relationships with colleagues.

Same principle applies to motivation, because it’s not something you can DO to someone. An individual is motivated – or not. What we do affects that, but we can’t directly take action and TA DAH! – look at me! Motivated employees!

What’s more, different people are motivated in different ways, by different things, and have different ways of showing that. Humans are wonderful infinitely varied creatures. You get the idea: there’s no secret formula that works for everyone every time.


So what CAN you do? A lot actually

Rather than treating a team of individuals as an entity to be given the same remedy, I think it helps to view motivation as the environment in which people work. You’ve probably worked in an environment where everyone seemed constantly grumpy and de-motivated, and I’m willing to bet it stemmed from the boss’s behaviour. I know that was true for me in a previous career.

At the same time I’m sure you can think of a work environment where life was tough, work was hard, but everyone really pitched in, helped each other out and made extra effort.

So look around your team and ask yourself how motivating the environment is, and I don’t just mean the surroundings, I mean the atmosphere.

Does everyone know WHY they’re doing what they’re doing?

Duh, you’d think so, right? Wrong – many people aren’t aware, or lose sight of, the bigger picture, the purpose of what they, the team, the department and the organisation is for. A sense of purpose is essential.

Does everyone know how they contribute to the team/organisation goals?

Sometimes this isn’t clear because there’s a culture of ‘it’s their job, dammit’. Not all that motivating. We need to know which wheels we help make go round, and what that does to help reach the destination. We need specifics that relate from the big picture stuff to what we’re doing all day, today.

Does everyone have a hefty amount of autonomy to get stuff done?

This is a big one: when people are given autonomy and the trust that comes with that, they are more likely to step up, take responsibility and put in discretionary effort. They’ll surprise you and themselves in the process. If they’re micro-managed it just doesn’t happen.

Like this blog post? You may find these interesting: 8 tips for better feedback and Manager say, manager not do.

Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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