How to motivate a team

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Motivation is defined as “the willingness to exert high levels of effort toward organizational goals conditioned by the effort’s ability to satisfy some individual needs” (Robbins in Mobbs and McFarland, 2010).

High achieving team leaders have contagious inspiration. Learn how to unlock your energy to motivate the people around you.

Key points

  • Extrinsically motivated people are driven by monetary rewards (like pay rises and bonuses), and threats or pressure
  • Intrinsically motivated people are passionate about what they do. They’re driven by challenging work, ambition, curiosity and a well-oiled environment
  • Team leaders can energise both extrinsic and intrinsic people by making an emotional connection

How team leaders motivate their people

Team leaders have no authority to reward. Hiring and firing, incentivising and promoting are beyond their power and pay grade.

If they can’t dangle-the-carrot, what influence can they hope to have?

Even those who are driven by external rewards can be inspired to do more if their team leader makes an emotional connection with them.

Types of motivation

Scan your team. Can you tell what motivates each one of them?

There are two motivational categories – intrinsic and extrinsic. Your employee might be one or another, or a blend of both.

A quick guide to extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is driven by a desire to be thanked and rewarded. They’ll behave in a certain way because it will achieve:

  • Incentives
  • Pay rise
  • Promotion
  • Praise
  • Winning

They’ll do anything to avoid threats, like a job loss or pay cuts, and punishments, like a reprimand or a telling off.

Lots of people are motivated by external rewards, but they can be motivated by joy too.

A quick guide to intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is driven by enjoyment. They’re guided by personal rewards and satisfaction, for example:

  • Overcoming a challenge
  • Curiosity for a subject
  • Enjoyment
  • Growth
  • Finding purpose and meaning

When you find something you enjoy doing and you have a sense of purpose (often a higher goal) then you are intrinsically motivated.

An intrinsic motivator is like your internal engine – you are motivated by the enjoyment of something.

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How to motivate intrinsic and extrinsic people

Inspire them.

Inspirational team leaders consistently deliver remarkable results, regardless of the extrinsic and intrinsic qualities, abilities and characters that make up their team.

How do they do it?

  • A blend of intrinsic motivation and self-awareness gives them the dexterity to connect with everyone
  • They apply the right energy and emotional lobbying to influence behaviour and inspire performance

That blend of positive attitude, enthusiasm and empathy is energising gold dust. It’s inspirational to be around.

Inspirational energy spreads like wildfire. It’s contagious. It gives people the energy to do the stuff you need them to do.

How to inspire your team

Be inspiring isn’t the most practical of advice. But as a team leader, it’s within your power and there’s a relatively simple way to achieve it.

What you need to realise is the enemy of inspiration is isolation and fear.

A collection of people who feel siloed and alone will come to work just for the money. They’ll huff and puff, stagnate the culture, waiting for raises, promotions and incentives. They’ll compete with one another. It’s a fractious way to work.

If you inspire those people, you’ll turn them into a well-oiled and intrinsically motivated team. Here’s how:

  • Create a common purpose: Make your team believe in the mission and buy into it. It’s the perfect route to creating communal intrinsic motivation
  • Create joy: Make time at work enjoyable. Give people the jobs they’ll enjoy, and be a positive, energised and enthused focal point

It’s your energy that will inspire, transform and unite the team.

Translate energy into inspiration

Whether your people respond to intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, you’ll be able to inspire and motivate them using emotional tactics.

That’s not to say you behave in an emotional way, or you let your emotions drive. It’s that you inject energy into the situation to give it importance.

For example:

The chief technology officer has been made redundant. Although there’s no lead on the project, we’re still expected to deliver and it needs wrapping up quickly.

This statement lacks empathy. Extrinsic people would graft to avoid jeopardy, but it would be awful for morale generally. It doesn’t inspire trust in the long run.

How does the same information read when it’s energised with emotion?:

Frustratingly, the chief technology officer has been made redundant. It’s a bit scary because we’ve lost our project lead. But, we do have an exciting opportunity to take ownership – it’s our success to make! The business wants the project finished quickly, but we need to take what we’ve learned so far and get the job done right. I need your honesty and expertise to refresh our outlook – can you tell me your thoughts about what’s been going well? Anything you would change?

By sharing their emotions, they’ve:

  • Created a familiar connection: They gave a completely relatable and controlled response to a testing situation
  • Created a common purpose: They empathised with frustrations and fear, uniting everyone to make a failing project a success
  • Created joy: They consulted their team not just as equals, but experts. The team feel trusted

If you were to let your emotions drive, it has a completely different effect:

This tyre fire of a project has lost its lead (more redundancies, I’m afraid!) So, you’re responsible now folks. The business wants it finished quickly because it’s laden with problems. I’ve told the powers that be you can handle it. Good luck, let me know if you need anything.

Although the common purpose is the failing project and the familiar connection is still fear and frustration, the presentation is divisive – managers versus employees.

Their team might be inspired to collaborate just to survive. But they won’t trust. It’s more likely they’ll succumb to demotivation and start looking for another job.

The neuroscience of inspirational leadership

Research published in the Journal of Management discovered that effective leaders inspired their followers by using inclusive visions of the future they could identify with. That shared identify amplified the message within an inspiration statement or speech.[1]

What is the neuroscience of trust?

Neuroeconomist and author of The Trust Factor: The Science Of Creating High Performance, Dr Paul Zak, believes that when someone shows that they trust you, oxytocin surges through your brain and makes you feel good. Your brain tells you to reciprocate.

“If you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return,” he wrote in this article from the Dana Foundation. He goes onto explain that emotionally engaging narratives inspire action when you’re finished speaking.

As a team leader, your job is to keep the positive energy cycle alive. It will build trust between you and the team, motivating them to achieve great things for you, them and the business. Keep up the energy and you’ll realise these benefits:

  • A team that trusts one another
  • Increased engagement
  • High productivity
  • A collaborative, high-trust workplace culture

How to build trust with your team

  1. Set achievable goals and hold people to account
  2. Recognise success and encourage peers to celebrate the success of their colleagues
  3. Encourage self-management
  4. Collaborate and share information
  5. Care about your people
  6. Help them to grow professionally
  7. Be yourself and don’t be afraid to ask them for help

[1]Molenberghs P, Prochilo G, Steffens NK, Zacher H, Haslam SA. The Neuroscience of Inspirational Leadership: The Importance of Collective-Oriented Language and Shared Group Membership. Journal of Management. 2017;43(7):2168-2194. doi:10.1177/0149206314565242

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