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Leadership Skill: What Motivates People

By harveyrobbins | May 28, 2008


I revised this article a year ago…and now it’s time once again to add some additional insigts to what motivates people.  At the end of this article, I will add some additional thoughts that you will find useful as a leader in terms of how to motivate others…

Most people will chime in and say cash. But it isn’t that simple. Cash can be a feeble bond if working conditions are unhealthy or the work itself is unsavory. For skilled workers there must usually be something besides cash on the barrelhead – security, the feeling of being appreciated, being left alone, pleasant working conditions, time off to recoup.

For some people the best reward of all is the work itself – the challenge of an engaging job. For some it is the interaction with other skilled team members. For some it is the intellectual gratification of addressing and solving a knotty problem. Still, for many people, and many occasions, the best reward in a commercial enterprise is good old money.

Management gurus insist that teams should not define their own reward systems – “that’s putting the monkeys in charge of the chicken coop”. But I think it’s an approach worth considering anyway. Team members shouldn’t set their pay levels, I agree – but they may make valuable contributions to defining benefit choices and designing recognition programs.

You may be a distinguished mind reader, and you may have picked the perfect reward last time. Next time, however, why don’t you ask workers what they would like as an incentive or reward? You can’t predict what will light a fire for them.

Consider team-proposed rewards as a kind of compensation laboratory. Yes, there will be some bad ideas, but there will be some that you would not have thought of in a million years by yourself, and the best will carry over to other teams as well.

Who Decides Who’s Rewarded?
The greater likelihood that the person you report to controls rewards, the greater the likelihood they will influence your behavior. In bureaucratic organizations, this logical rule of thumb doesn’t apply – simply come to work and keep breathing and you get everything that’s good. Reward systems cannot be automatic or remote – to be effective they must be managed from close range. Are rewards stipulated by the same entity that measures individual and team performance? They should be.

Should team leaders and team members be part of the individual evaluation process? That’s a tough call. People on the team have the best knowledge of the value of one another’s work. But team members must not be put in the position of politicking one another for promotions and raises. It’s best to have the evaluation occur outside the team, with some evaluation information supplied from within.

Are workers rewarded just for showing up every day? For individual performance? Group performance? Organizational performance? Only a company with a narrow array of functions should be using a single reward approach. It is natural to use incentives to compensate sales people. But if it is good to encourage people in sales, why leave out support functions? The entire bandwidth of a company’s workforce must be looked at to find rewards that push people together toward organizational success.

Rewards must be for achievements that matter, not non contributing, non value-added activities. People must feel their work is important. People who cannot make the crossing to be more accountable even with training must be winnowed out and replaced.

Most organizations spend an inordinate amount of time trying to use their merit budget appropriately. One of W. Edward Deming’s Fourteen Points, however, is that merit raises be abolished. Not only are they destructive to team spirit – each member’s raise coming at the expense of every other member’s raises – but they just don’t work. Splitting 4 percent into x number of shares evenly at the end of the year is not an incentive. By definition, you offer incentives before the fact, not after.

This is such a simple idea – aligning your team’s reward and performance with its business objectives. All it takes is clear thinking, some careful study, and the honesty to see what your organization is really saying to teams.

Some new ideas for leaders to think about when trying to figure out how to motivate others:  First of all, you cannot motivate others.  I know this sounds crazy because you’ve been told that it’s one of the most important aspects of your role as a leader…to motivate others.  But, motivation comes from inside, not outside.  At best, you can create an environment that helps people motivate themselves.  So, lets look at what motivates human beings…from a psychological point of view. 

Motivation comes from the successful completion of defined outcomes.  It’s a basic reason for existance.  For example, I’m sure most of you have received “honey do” lists or “to-do” lists from your spouses or significant others.  And mostly you do the things on the list.  Some of you may even dilude yourself to thinking that you are accomplishing the things on the list to make the other person feel better.  Or you may do the things on the list because the consequences of not doing them are too dangerous.  But, let’s be honest.  The reason you are doing the things on the list is that the physical act of crossing something off the list feels really good…inside.

So, as a leader you can create this “feeling” of accomplishment (and motivation) in others by setting up “to-do” lists of items.  To-do lists that are prioritized and for each item have a definition of success so you know when you’ve accomplished the task.  Once the outcome is achieved, you “catch the person doing something right” and you reward them using the suggestions listed above.

Simple, right?

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