Why you shouldn’t motivate your employees

Written by Jo Owen CMgr CCMI Wednesday 10 November 2021
Only 1 in 3 think their boss is good at motivation. This is how to ramp up your team’s motivation without the inspirational quotes on the wall
An image of a team working together

There is an epidemic of alienation and low motivation at work. A Gallup poll found that just 31% of staff are engaged at work, and 14% feel actively alienated at work. This chimes with research I conducted with leaders: 67% of leaders thought that motivation was important and that they did it well. However, when I asked their teams how well their bosses rated on motivation, only 32% thought their boss was any good at it. If managers are meant to be able to motivate their teams, they are clearly failing.

A measure of management’s failure to motivate is that staff report that they feel less stress and are much happier when they work from home, away from the helping hand of their manager. This isn’t a surprising finding. Most professionals have pride in their work and want to do a good job. They are already intrinsically motivated. The best way to motivate them is to stop interfering (“helping”) and let them overachieve.

You can’t tell your team to be motivated, or happy and positive. All these things come from within. Instead of trying to inspire and motivate your team, all you have to do is to create the conditions in which they can sustain their own intrinsic motivation.

The best way to manage and motivate a professional team is to manage them less.

Jo Owen CMgr CCMI

Ramp it up

There are four pillars of intrinsic motivation which you can build: supportive relationships, autonomy and accountability, mastery and growth and finally purpose and meaning. These four pillars can be captured in an acronym: RAMP.

R: Supportive relationships

Ditch command and control. It does not work remotely. Instead, trust your team to deliver and support them.

The best way to support them is to listen. In a time-starved world, this may be painful to you, but it will delight your team. It’s flattering to be listened to, and you’ll find out more about what is and isn’t working by listening than by telling.

You can bake this into the rhythms and routines of the day. Some teams now start and finish every day with a team meeting: this is a chance for each team member to ask for and offer help to each other. It’s also a good way for you to enforce accountability: you quickly find out who’s doing what and whether they’re on track or need help.

A: Autonomy and accountability

Most professionals crave autonomy, and remote working has forced even the most traditional command-and-control manager to give their employees more autonomy. It’s hard to micromanage people who you can’t see or hear. The best way to manage and motivate a professional team is to manage them less.

But there’s one area where you can not step back: goal-setting and clarity. Your team may like autonomy, but they will hate ambiguity. Ambiguity leads to overwork and rework as employees try to guess what the desired outcome should be.

M: Mastery and growth

It’s hard to be motivated if you lack the skills for today’s role and you’re not growing the skills for tomorrow’s role. Plus, autonomy depends on mastery: you can not trust your team unless they have the right skills.

Remote work can be supported by remote training. You’re no longer tied to the local trainer with a flipchart and a franchised theory. You can seek out the best support globally and bring it to your team on a just-in-time basis.

P: Purpose

All jobs involve dull routine and dealing with difficult problems and people. If that’s all you see in your job, it’s hard to sustain long-term motivation. A deep personal sense of purpose makes even the mundane feel meaningful.

The armed forces, NGOs and churches are full of deeply motivated people, despite low pay and poor conditions. Purpose is always personal: the corporate mission statement is useless. You have to discover the meaning and purpose of your work and your career and understand what makes your employees tick too.

Put RAMP in place and you won’t need to stand on your desk and make inspirational and motivational speeches to your team. You’ll have created the conditions in which your team will rediscover their intrinsic motivation and perform for you, without having to be micromanaged.

Jo’s book Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams (Bloomsbury, 2021) is out now.

Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

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Jo Owen CMgr CCMI

Jo Owen CMgr CCMI

Jo Owen is an author, sought-after international keynote speaker and founder of eight NGOs (including Teach First). He is also the only four-time winning author of the CMI Gold Award.

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