Stop Motivating Your Team! (Do This Instead)


Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot of questions by managers in a variety of roles across numerous organizations. By far, the most frequently asked question is “How do I motivate my team?” Some are looking to increase sales performance. Others want to improve customer service or productivity. In many cases, managers seem frustrated by an overall lack of engagement exhibited by members of their staff. Energy levels are low, efficiency suffers, and goals go unmet.

So concerned managers wrack their brains trying to find a way to turn things around. They see a problem that needs fixing and go in search of a solution. ”If I can just get people motivated,” they think, “things will start moving in the right direction.”

And therein, I think, lies the problem. Motivation sounds like what we need to get the troops out of the doldrums. But it doesn’t. It can’t. To understand why motivation isn’t the answer, we first need to understand what motivation is. Let’s look at the root word “motivate.”

motivate: to provide with a motive or motives; incite; impel

Motivation is an external action designed to cause an internal reaction. It’s something one person does in order to elicit a response from someone else. Think about the typical actions many associate with motivation. Contests, incentives, awards, raises, and other types of recognition/reward strategies are used to spur a change in behavior. So are things like deadlines, threats, disciplinary actions, and other punitive measures. All can be, and have been, considered motivational strategies.

The inherent problem with these and other external actions traditionally used as motivation is that the behavior shift that results is, at best, temporary. The high from winning a contest or being recognized only lasts so long. The sting from negative feedback or an ultimatum loses intensity as time goes on. And as temporary emotions fade away, so do the changes in behavior associated with them.

As employee behavior slides back into mediocre territory, managers dip back into the box of potential motivators in an effort to stop the decline. The cycle of performance drop/motivation/performance improvement then begins again. Employees settle into a routine of reacting to the temporary external stimulus with a temporary burst of activity sufficient enough to win/satisfy the requirement/get management off my back and then easing up until the next stimulus comes along.

But if motivation isn’t the answer, then what is?

The key to long-term performance is not a short-lived behavior modification, but a long-term transformation of core beliefs. The answer is not externally driven, but internally. The answer is not motivation, but inspiration. Let’s check out another definition.

inspire: to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence.

Do you see the difference? Motivation focuses on the head while inspiration targets the heart. Inspiring someone causes an empty part of them to be filled and the result is change that influences how they approach the concept of work itself, not just a particular task. Motivation can be applied or withdrawn at any time with correspondingly immediate results. Inspiration, on the other hand, becomes part of you and drives how you fundamentally think about things. Inspiration creates a deep-rooted drive to behave differently. Motivation may spark a temporary shift in behavior, but inspiration ignites a long-term change in attitude.

Inspired people are inherently motivated. So, the real question then is “How do I inspire my team?“

Well, if you’ve been reading the past few weeks, you already know some of the basics. How does that old saying go? “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Once you’ve mastered the skill of developing relationships, people are instinctively drawn to you. And that’s important; because it’s only then – when they trust you and want to listen to you – that you can share your vision and ask them to participate in it. If done right, they’ll get on board; not as motivated worker-bees, but as inspired partners.

Inspiration isn’t a one-time action. It results from extended exposure to someone who sees people, not employees. It’s about fulfilling potential, not completing tasks. It’s about contributing to something bigger than myself as opposed to being a cog in the machine.

People don’t want to be motivated. But we all have a desperate, innate need to be inspired. Fulfill that need and see just how far the team will take you. Who will you inspire today?

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