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How Can Managers Motivate Teams? It's More Obvious Than You Think.

Graphic Showing Being FriendsManagers talk a lot about motivating their teams.

Sales managers motivate, or so they think, with financial incentives and contests. Companies create elaborate Employee-of-the-Month type programs to motivate people.

I know leaders who swear by their own motivational techniques – handwritten notes, public recognition, taking high performers to lunch, giving out Starbucks gift cards, and so on.

The truth is that different people are motivated in different ways. For example, I am very achievement-oriented and will work mighty hard to win any contest I participate in.

As a salesperson, I enjoyed the cruises I won and the spiffs and bonuses I earned. But I would’ve worked just as hard without them. (And I have in later jobs where there was no financial incentive in a contest.) It was seeing my name in the #1 position that motivated me, not the rewards.

How can managers motivate their teams?

Some people are completely demotivated by contests. They find the attention and ballyhoo to be annoying, distracting, and even demeaning. They want to be rewarded for consistent performance all the time and feel contests are artificial measures of worth. They may even pull back and perform at a lower level when contests are being conducted.

No motivational tool or technique is universally appealing to all people at all times. What we individually value depends on our personality type, our current needs, our stage in life, and our circumstances. It may also depend on how we feel about the company, boss or job. If you feel negative and uninspired, a simple one-time motivator is unlikely to turn you around.

It’s been said that managers cannot motivate people, that it’s important to hire self-motivated people instead. But even self-motivated people can lose their motivation if the work environment is draining or the job is a poor fit or if there are personal issues consuming the employee.

Does this mean that managers are off the hook to motivate their employees?

Absolutely not. In fact, it means just the opposite.

Managers can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all motivator, no matter how much they personally value it and would feel rewarded by it. What managers should do instead is get to know the people on their team and make sure everyone is being motivated and rewarded in ways that are meaningful to them individually.

Some companies disallow this practice and some managers can’t imagine doing this. Their concern is that it wouldn’t be fair to do different things for different people.

The point I am trying to make is this: If you are doing the same thing for everyone, you actually are not being fair. For the person who desires what you’re offering, this is a huge win. For the person who doesn’t want the very same thing, this is not motivating, and they may feel cheated.

Why do managers need to help motivate employees?

A close personal friend gives 15-20 Starbucks gift cards to a charity for Christmas every year. She has a collection of them because her boss of seven years has made it a routine practice to hand out Starbucks rewards for various accomplishments. My friend does not drink any hot beverage and does not eat many processed foods or sugars. Starbucks, to her, is of absolutely no value. You’d think by now that the boss would notice that she never has a cup in hand, that she has a very limited diet, or that she is less than enthusiastic each time he hands her another “reward.” She once asked him if it would be possible to have cash instead of cards. His response was, “Everyone loves Starbucks and it’s become my special way of saying, ‘Thank you.’” He missed the point entirely.

He is not alone in thinking of motivation this way. Many of us think that rewarding and recognizing people is a task that managers have to do. I teach classes on how to do this, and managers leave with a set of tips and techniques they will use. But not all of them leave with a new understanding of why this matters and how they can truly motivate people by being more thoughtful in their approach.

That’s why there’s been this groundswell of support for the theory that you just can’t motivate other people. Either they’re motivated or not. That’s a bit simplistic in my opinion, but it’s an easy out for managers and others who should be creating environments where people thrive and strive to do more and better.

Managers, at a minimum, should be creating environments where people can feel motivated.

  • That means harmonious, productive, supportive environments.

  • It means getting to know people well enough that you can adapt what you do for them so they feel special and truly rewarded.

  • It means treating people like individuals and not expecting them to respond as you would.

This takes effort and insight, but it can make a real difference in the effectiveness of people and of their manager.

Still not convinced? Try this exercise:

  1. Write down the names of five people who rely, at least in part, on you for recognition and motivation.
  2. Now write down what motivates each of them.
  3. Next, go and ask each of them this question: “In your career and elsewhere, please describe one example of a time when someone did something that really motivated you.”
  4. Ask follow up questions to understand what happened in that example.
  5. Then compare what you learned to what you wrote down.

You will be surprised.
Career roadblock

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published July 2012 and has been recently updated.