Like many leadership topics, there are some quite differing opinions on the subject of ‘motivation’, and how to encourage it. As a naturally self-motivated person, I’ve always been on the edge of cynicism – believing that you can train for a lot of things, but you can’t definitively, ‘train’ someone to be, or become, motivated.
However, there is no doubt that there is an overwhelming body of research arguing that this is not the case – and that actually through measures like strong leadership, clear communication of vision, job enrichment (the Herzberg model) and variety, you can!
What is ‘motivation’?
For the purpose of what we’re talking about, let’s define motivation as a behaviour characterised by a sense of accountability, dedication, diligence and proactivity in working style. I think everyone will agree that a ‘motivated’ individual is usually self-propelled, needs little hand-holding and is generally ambitious and enthusiastic in their engagements with those around them. There is a lot of talk about this quality, especially in reference to discussions about Millennial employees – who generally require very specific work environments, variety and clear purpose in order to demonstrate motivation in work.
Can your leadership style have an impact on the motivation levels of others?
If you look at this question conversely, it is as plain as day that bad leadership reduces motivation. Even the most self-motivated of people will wilt and fade if they are in an environment that causes unnecessary stressors through poor management choices and/or activities. On the other side of the coin when looking at the positive effect of good leadership, Monique Valcour, in a recent HBR article argues that leaders do indeed act as an “integral part of the motivational ecosystem” of their teams. She illustrates that when employees feel valued, trusted, challenged and supported they are more likely to demonstrate motivational qualities. She argues that even consistently underperforming individuals can have their motivation boosted through good leadership.
What can you do about it to boost or sustain motivation?
Valcour’s argument rests on the fact that it is the leader’s attitude that makes or breaks employee motivation. She makes reference to a number of examples of managing de-motivation, one in particular surrounding a member of a team that a manager had ‘written off’ as being a terminal under-performer. By working with the manager to shift their attitude from negative “containment” to positively facilitating and supporting the individual to perform their job at the required standard, the employee actually become more motivated.
Finally, what should you avoid?
There are two aspects of common management practice that cause perpetuating issues when it comes to motivation – firstly, trying to boost motivation through remuneration; and secondly, the tendency to reduce human beings to ‘objects’ or ‘problems’. When someone is underperforming, especially in a large corporate, they are often seen as an ‘issue’ – dehumanising, reducing and simplifying a complex situation into no more than an underperformance ‘problem’. When this happens, the attempt to work with the individual to improve performance slides. By actually trying to understand the perspective of the under-performer, Valcour argues, you are more likely to be able to built a level of enthusiasm and commitment to the remedial actions needed.
Herzberg, F., (2008) One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? HBR Classics.
Valcour, M., (2017) “Motivating People Starts with Having the Right Attitude”, HBR.