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Leaders and Motivation: Is It Them or Me?

Image of Leaders and Motivation: Is It Them or Me?

What have you done lately to help your team fully invest in their work?

Leaders frequently ask me to explain why some members of their workforce don’t seem fully engaged or motivated. They report that people are just going through the motions or, worse, just doing what’s minimally expected. “In an era when innovation, speed, creativity, and energy are in demand,” one said, “if our team isn’t ‘all in’ we cannot meet our goals.”

To address this dilemma, we must focus on the root of motivation and the role of the leader. All too often, we assign accountability for commitment shortcomings to the employee when it’s the leader’s behavior that requires examination.

Let’s revisit the studies and findings on motivation shared by Edward Deci, Susan Fowler, and Daniel Pink, as they’ve provided the blueprint for effective leadership action. While their discoveries are slightly different, their collective concepts are remarkably similar. At the core is the notion that the leader can’t, and shouldn’t, be the motivator of others. Instead, the leader needs to create an environment where workers motivate themselves. To many, this is inconsistent with long-held beliefs that the manager must be driving and directing employees with overt or covert uses of power. I’m referring to a mentality of “I am the boss, so they should perform accordingly.” This approach leads to completing delegated tasks, but it won’t excite workers to apply all their skill and energy to the effort at hand. Far greater outcomes are achieved when someone decides to commit their actions to a cause instead of simply complying with requests. Imagine the difference between being a volunteer and being a hostage!

To establish an environment where employees willingly and energetically apply themselves, leaders must understand and leverage three tenets of intrinsic motivation: mastery, autonomy, and purpose (MAP).

Mastery means that while team members are doing work, they have a sense of personal or professional advancement. By performing their activities and tasks, they’re somehow growing, improving, and getting better. Whether through the adoption of new skills or behavior or the success of a related accomplishment, they see a new version of themselves that’s inspiring. If you’ve seen toddlers take their first steps, you’ve witnessed the power of confidence growing. The role of the leader is to create a line of sight for each team member to see how they further their own development through the work.

Autonomy doesn’t mean “go work alone.” Autonomy refers to enabling employees to exercise personal choice in how they achieve stated objectives. In contrast to the extreme of “here’s what to do, and here’s how to do it,” this concept invites and encourages workers to carry out their assignments in ways they feel will generate success using their own ideas and skills. When we have a degree of personal control and decision-making authority, we are energized to own our work. Visualize a fork in the road and the strength you feel when selecting your route. Autonomy requires leaders to empower their team members to grant the freedom to choose their path.

Finally, purpose is the third component of true employee motivation. Simply put, we all have a need to feel that what we do at work is connected to and contributing to something much larger than ourselves. There’s a sense of meaning for our labor. No one wants to simply sit and watch the clock ticking away. When employees don’t see how their efforts matter, disengagement sets in. It’s the leader’s responsibility to understand each team member’s desires and personal and professional drivers and relate those hopes and values to the work being performed.

I invite leaders to reflect for a moment. If you sense that one or more of your professionals aren’t maximally motivated, ask yourself which of these elements requires your attention. Feel free to contact me for both individual and group applications of these motivational factors. Until then, good leading.

About The Author

Neil Bryant

Neil is committed to the development of leaders… executive, mid-level, and emerging… and supporting all professionals who seek to elevate their performance and enjoyment of work. Following a meaningful career in sales, marketing, consulting, and business management in large corporations, he turned his focus to the leadership development and Executive Coaching fields. His passion lies in enabling leaders, and all committed professionals, to become the most effective and satisfying version of themselves, particularly in the context of their work environment.

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