19 July 2015

Why do some business people excel at motivating their teams while others seem to struggle?

I’ve long been fascinated by how great organisations inspire people to perform at their best over prolonged periods of time, and I love reading books and watching presentations to find other people’s insights and experiences.

A sense of purpose is key to motivation

A sense of purpose is key to motivating your team

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, when it comes to keeping people engaged and inspired, it’s about understanding what makes people tick.

I recently came across a talk by a man called Dan Pink. It was called ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’ and it is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it before. In a nutshell, it explains that rewards such as money and other prizes, whilst they have a role in motivating people, are not the primary drivers.

You might be thinking, “But Lawrence, you’re always rewarding your team” and this is true. It’s in our culture to regularly thank people for their hard work. Why? Because it makes people feel valued and it is the pat on the back that they deserve, but is it the reason they set out to achieve something or go above and beyond to deliver an amazing level of service?

Personally, I think a lot of it is down to culture.

Motivation is just one piece of the puzzle. Creating a culture where people are empowered and have their own area of ownership also plays a big part.

In Dan Pink’s talk, he discusses what he calls intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators cover the traditional carrot and stick approach to business where if someone does X, they will get Y. So, you might say, “If you do this job, I will give you £50.”

With some tasks this can be effective. When the job is clear and the person doing it knows how to carry it out, the incentive provides a motivational boost.

What’s interesting, however, is how people tend to respond when a reward is offered for problem-solving that demands creativity. In the ‘Puzzle of Motivation’ talk, Pink describes an experiment called ‘the Candle Problem’ to outline what happens in this scenario.

In the experiment, participants are given a candle, a box of drawing pins and a box of matches, and asked to attach the candle to the wall. Most of the time people try to pin the candle to the wall using the drawing pins or even melt the candle to the wall. But by using the box that contains the drawing pins as a stand for the candle and pinning that to the wall, the task can be completed.

Two groups were asked to complete the challenge, one being told that they were being timed to find out what the average would be and the other thinking that they would win a cash prize for being the fastest.

Surprisingly, the group who were working for the reward took three and a half minutes longer on average than the first group. However, when the drawing pins were taken out of the box, making the solution clearer, the group being rewarded completed it the fastest.

So, what do we learn from this experiment and how can we apply it to business? Personally, I think it highlights the importance of balancing both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Rewards and prizes are beneficial in certain situations, but they can narrow people’s focus instead of boosting creative thinking. In my opinion, they’re best used to make the whole team feel valued on a job well done.

How do you encourage creative thinking?

How do you encourage creative thinking?

Motivation, at its best, goes deeper than this. It’s part of the fabric of your company’s culture and happens when you make sure people are empowered; when they have a sense of purpose and the tools, knowledge and support to do their job to the best of their abilities.

This might mean you invest in someone’s learning journey and provide training opportunities before providing a real opportunity to put that knowledge to the test. Or you might make use of the 20% rule originally used by Google, encouraging your team to use 20% of their time working on their own pet projects.

Motivation, in my experience, is a combination of short term rewards and more meaningful long-term values and company culture.

Ultimately, though, if you’re struggling to motivate your team there is a simple yet often overlooked way to solve this, and that’s by asking them. It sounds obvious but we’ve all been guilty of communication breakdowns every now and again. An informal chat about what your team needs to boost their energy and confidence can often be the missing piece of the motivation puzzle!

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