How Every Leader Can Easily Motivate Staff and Engage Employees

Fifth in a series of Seven Essential Executive Skills. For the other articles in the series, click this link: Seven Essential Executive Skills.

Motivated Employees

You can’t make an adult do something. You can only prevent someone from acting.

No society, no workplace has a tool that can force motivation.

But we do have prisons.

You can’t force motivation. You can only force compliance. Sometimes.

Here’s how that is done:

  • Punish non-compliance (You’re fired! Your pay is docked! You’ll never get that promotion! You are always going to get the lousy work around here!).
  • Reward compliance (If you do A we’ll give you B!).

This is not usually the language used during recruitment or orientation.

But it is the message that is often communicated.

Stick! Carrot!

That sounds like an awesome place to work.

Let’s be candid here…one reason many people pursue leadership opportunities is that they were sick and tired of the stick and carrot approach to motivation.

But that doesn’t stop them from using it on others.

That’s definitely a reason why:

  • More people are pursuing entrepreneurialism.
  • Why the gig economy is growing.
  • Why employee loyalty decreases, for most employers, as earning options increase.

The internet, like the printing press, steam engines and assembly lines has transformed how our economy works.

It has created options.

Options decrease the external pressure (Stick! Carrot!) for your employees to stay with you and to perform.

More than ever leaders need to engage the motivation of their employees

Or they’ll always struggle with getting and holding employees. Definitely with getting and holding ideal employees.

I was sitting in a fancy office in a fancy building with a Vice President.

She asked, “How do I motivate people?”

“You can’t,” I said. “You can only find out what motivates them already and learn to connect to that. Once you learn to tie into what already does motivate them – they’ll be engaged.”

She looked crestfallen.

I don’t know what she was hoping for as an answer. Maybe a change in a compensation program (More carrots!).

That’s often what executives assume.

But what was actually needed was leadership.

She needed to learn to figure out – “Where is that employee at – internally? In their motivation? How do I get them to willingly offer their energy and skills to accomplish something we both want?

That takes a little bit of effort.

Many leaders check out at this point. “Don’t tell me I need to lead! Tell me I can change an HR policy!”

What is motivation?

Motivation is an internal drive or desire that I feel. That you feel. That your team feels.

It is inside. It compels me, you and others to act.

We all, naturally, begin to look for ways to act that allow us to increase the likelihood of having that desire realized.

Since most people have multiple desires – they may be willing to subduct some. For a time. But as options make themselves available – their greater desires will start to emerge.

I’ve spent a large part of my career in the non-profit sector.

One thing the non-profit world does well is learning to engage motivation.

  • Do you want to make a difference in the world?
  • Do you want to change a child’s life?
  • Do you want to be a hero to someone?

When I worked in international disaster relief, the agency I worked with held a 10-day screening/training that everyone needed to go through to be considered for a position.

I had to take time off, fly to Switzerland (on my tab) and pay to go through the process to see if I could get selected.

During the 10-day process, we listened to experienced staff tell stories of personal hardship, challenge, discouragement, frustration, and sacrifice.

Then they worked us, deprived us of sleep, stressed us and made life unpleasant to see if they thought we could hack it. Of the 20% or so who were offered positions – the first year was volunteer. Unpaid.

It was like an anti-sell.

It is extraordinarily effective. Highly trained doctors, nurses, executives of Fortune 500 companies were all trying to pass the test – to work for free.

What made it work?

They tapped, directly, into what was really motivating us. At a deep level.

What motivates people? At a deep level?

Three things:

  • Significance: I want to feel important. That my life has value. That my work has purpose.
  • Security: I want to feel like financially, relationally, physically I’m secure.
  • Satisfaction: I want to enjoy life and the relationships around me.

What this agency didn’t offer in the way of the normal definition of security it made up for, in truckloads by offering: Significance and Satisfaction.

  • Every single day you’ll be living a life of purpose.
  • People will stop dying because of you.
  • People will have hope because of you.
  • You (might) get to be a hero.
  • You will meet amazing people and experience what others only read about.

Powerful stuff.

They found out they weren’t getting the tenure that they wanted from staff.

So, they started to work on improving some of the financial security side as well. Not trying to make the job a place to get rich. But to make sure that people didn’t have to worry about retirement, or loans or aging parents.

My office is above a local coffee company. I used to work for them over 20 years ago. Many of my colleagues from back then still work at this company. Some are still in the same position.

This company knows how to tap into their motivation. In an industry with normally high turnover – they retain staff for extraordinarily long periods of time.

What Specifically Motivates People?

There are a handful of non-mysterious motivators in the workplace.

Specific motivators of employee performance and engagement have been extensively studied for over 100 years.

In other words, despite the very common frustration supervisors feel – it is a well-understood topic.

Ranking varies a bit from study to study and over time. But one study of over 200,000 employees at 50 different companies is reflective. In order of ranking, the following were found to be motivators:

  • Camaraderie or quality of relationships with co-workers.
  • Personal desire to do good work/self-respect.
  • Recognition and encouragement from employer.
  • A sense of purpose or impact.
  • Personal and professional growth.
  • Being able to meet the needs of others.
  • Positive management/leadership at the company.
  • Belief in company or product.
  • Other.

It’s not to say that compensation doesn’t matter. But money is always only a means to an end.

Once people no longer need to financially worry about basic financial security, other ends become more important.

This doesn’t mean you should start compensating people less. Or that you shouldn’t have an incentive structure.

What it means is that there are many more options for you to engage. Many of which will work better than compensation. Here are some examples that some companies have found:

  • Recognizing performance in a way that is felt to be genuine and deserved.
  • Regular employee get-togethers were highly valued events. They translated to increased morale. (Opportunity for camaraderie.)
  • Offering more time off was of greater value than a pay raise.
  • “Fun” incentives (TV’s, gadgets, experiences) were more motivational then straight cash – even if they were of a lower cash value.
  • When a leader creates a connection between employee actions and impact on clients it is motivational.

What it really means is that there are many motivators that people have.

A savvy leader will use this list as a starting point to explore what motivates their people he or she leads.

How Will You Engage Motivation?

What are one or two actions you can take to better understand what motivates those you directly lead?

What are one or two ways that you can start to help them connect to what really motivates them?

Take good care,


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