How to boost your team’s productivity and happiness by developing motivation

Dealing with ‘difficult’ or ‘problematic’ colleagues, whether they are your direct reports, peers, or even your boss, is draining and exhausting. As leaders, it can feel like the majority of our time is spent on just a few people. And typically it is the staff/projects that we don’t want to spend time which makes the whole thing even more draining. What if I told you that if we invest a small amount of time upfront, this problem can be removed? If instead of managing performance you managed motivation you could remove the burden of dealing with that ‘difficult’ person and instead have them show up as yet another great employee? This is possible - we just need to approach the issue differently.

When we have difficult, underperforming colleagues, we often fall into a cycle of using traditional performance management processes and practices, that doesn’t seem to do anything other than require more action from us as managers. We place staff on more careful management. Then we move to explicit performance management. And six months later we end up having spent a lot of time on a member of staff that leaves or we deliberately let go.

This just seems like a huge waste of everyone’s time right? No one wins – not you, not the team, and certainly not the staff member who moves on to other things.

Add COVID-19 into the mix and suddenly we all have many more reasons for our performance to fluctuate or drop. You know that some of these staff are your best staff in more typical times, but right now, during COVID, everything is off.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I’ve been talking to my clients about motivation a lot recently. Both their own motivation, and that of their colleagues. Because everyone, even those thriving in the working at home environment, are finding new barriers and new emotional drains which impact productivity and output. And it is this change that needs addressing. 

What motivates you, won’t necessarily motivate others. Motivating others requires a different set of tactics than what you use to motivate yourself. But they both rely on understanding motivation so you can address the gaps.

What is motivation?

This may seem like an obvious question, but it is often something that is overlooked when we are looking at a colleague who isn’t working the way we want them to.

In its simplest form, motivation is the thing we each need to make progress. The big problem is that motivation is unreliable in how frequently it shows up and how long it stays around. And of course, we can make things worse by getting upset at not having motivation – that in itself is demotivating!

It is often easier to identify a lack of motivation than motivation itself, especially when we are looking at others. A lack of motivation looks like procrastination and laziness. Keep this front and centre when you are dealing with a ‘difficult’ colleague and you may find a better way to ‘manage performance’ than simply tackling what you perceive to be intrinsic laziness.

Remember that all of us have motivation for something. If someone works for you, they have probably had the motivation to get an education, pass some exams, apply for a job, go through a job interview process. So it is time to dismiss the common assumption that some people are ‘just lazy’ – they are only lazy in what you are aware of because they aren’t experiencing motivation. And as leaders, this is at least partly on us (particularly if this person has shown motivation for the work in the past).

What is needed for motivation to exist?

There are three key components of motivation, which all intertwine:

  1. Purpose
    The most obvious, but yet overlooked component of motivation is having a sense of purpose. Human’s are driven to take action because of what the action will achieve. But we need to have that sense of purpose as to what will be achieved. And it is different for all of us. You might be working on the same goal as your colleagues, with the same outcomes, but the purpose for each individual will be different. For some, it might be a sense of achievement in discovery or completing a task. For others, the purpose is bigger and will differ for different people.
  2. Belief.
    Belief needs to be present in multiple ways.
    • Belief in the what. If we don’t believe in what we are doing, that it will achieve something, that it will work, our motivation drains away. Think about any time you have been told to do something that you fundamentally felt wouldn’t work – it is incredibly hard to get past that!
    • Belief in the why. This is going beyond ‘purpose’ to truly believing in the purpose. Quite often the purpose is bigger than an immediate why. To feel motivation we need to feel that the ‘why’ around this piece of the puzzle will achieve that larger purpose.
    • Belief in ourselves. A lack of belief in ourselves frequently manifests in impostor syndrome and a lack of confidence. But what others see is procrastination. We need to instil belief in the ability to do the work to ensure motivation exists and continues to exist.
  3. Clarity.
    To become motivated and stay motivated we need clarity. Clarity on our purpose. Clarity on what we need to do next. And clarity on what needs to occur long term. A productivity killer is having competing purposes or competing prioritisations. This saps energy, and long term kills belief in the why, the what and ourselves. Decision fatigue is real, and having many things to do and not knowing how to choose really can drain motivation. Long term this can result in a team member who initially was a superstar appearing burnt out and ready to leave.

The final component of motivation is energy. Energy spans purpose, belief and clarity. How often have you said ‘if I only had more energy’ when you are lacking motivation. But energy doesn’t just come from having a good nights sleep. Energy comes from motivation itself. If you have purpose, belief and clarity, energy materialises. But sometimes we don’t have enough energy to define our purpose, belief and clarity – this more often than not results in burn-out!

Finally, remember that for most of us motivation occurs after an event! This is one of those highly annoying conditions that we have to face as humans. But recognising this will make you better able to manage motivation in others and yourself. When we have successfully achieved something clarity and belief are amplified. We have ‘proof’ that something is possible. This further amplifies purpose as we feel closer (even just fractionally) to our goal. This is why it is easier to do something the second time – it isn’t just that you did it once and have learnt how it is that you have more motivation to get it done! To really use motivation as a tool, we need to bring that feeling to before the first attempt, lean into the anticipation of how we will feel to push through the uncomfortableness of doing something new for the first time.

How to motivate others

Once we understand what motivation really is, it becomes clear why the traditional ‘carrot and stick’ approach fails when it comes to getting people to work. Money is one small component of motivation. Multiple studies have shown that the link between salary and job satisfaction is extraordinarily weak. So money is not the answer. Similarly, traditional performance management rarely works. And as soon as this a discussion moves to managing poor performance you are eroding the belief piece that is a necessary components of motivation. So despite years of usage in business, the carrot-and-stick approach is just about the worst thing that can happen.

What can we do instead?

It is worth going back to first principles to understand why motivation in the person you are working with has changed. Organise a one-on-one, open discussion to delve into what is going on. Remember you are looking to identify what is lacking: (1) Purpose, (2) Belief and (3) Clarity.

  1. Developing Purpose in others
    Remember that just because you feel strongly about your purpose, why you are doing something and have clarity in that purpose, that it won’t necessarily work for someone else. In fact, you can almost guarantee that your purpose will not light up someone else in the same way. A great motivational speech can help, but each of us has a unique set of experiences that contribute to a unique purpose. So don’t assume that if you can just make someone understand your purpose you can convince them to follow-along. They may follow, but the reasons are likely to be at least subtly different! As a manager and leader you want to coach the person you are working with into finding their purpose. Help them identify what lights them up, why they should focus on one purpose only. Remember this needs to come from them, not from you. As soon as you fall into the trap of telling them what their purpose is, you are going to lose them again.
    A purpose might start small – that is OK. It doesn’t need to be big and grand – it might just be a purpose for the next week. Start there, and then it can grow.
  2. Developing Belief in others
    Belief is often one of the things that is holding us back, particularly if we’ve moved from an office environment with camaraderie and casual feedback to a virtual environment. There is no longer that accidental pat on the back that the office environment provides. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t needed, nor that it can’t be provided – there are many examples of business’ that have nurtured a productive and happy virtual team. And there are others which haven’t. And the need to instil and maintain belief is something that needs to be actively addressed with a remote team.
    You want to identify what has changed – do they have belief in their abilities, has impostor syndrome flared up, do they believe that what they are doing is going to make a difference? Help to understand this, and then address issues one-by-one. Remember that you can loan belief by sharing that you believe they can do the task, or sharing your vision for what the task will achieve. This ‘loan’ of belief is temporary, but can start moving towards an upwards motivational trajectory. By loaning belief you are also loaning them energy and therefore action. But it is temporary and will not last.
  3. Developing Clarity in others
    I have seen many examples in my client’s and in my client’s teams of the impact of COVID-19 on clarity. Clarity on what is important is changing our beliefs and our purpose. Clarity on competing purpose is impacting productivity. Clarity on what to do next is sometimes entirely absent. Yes, we all want staff that can easily prioritise their own work, but when we are stressed out, this becomes much more challenging. Lend your team some clarity by helping them to structure their workload. But make sure that the clarity you provide by structuring their priorities gives them something that amplifies the purpose and belief you’ve just built up. That is where the real magic happens!
    The mistake many managers make is falling into micro-management when we realise that our team is under-performing. And the clarity piece can make this far too easy. Beware setting their priorities for them or taking too much off someone’s plate because they ‘aren’t coping’. That can quickly undermine belief in the business, in you as a manager and in themselves. Instead, you want to coach your team members in developing their own clarity and giving them the ability (and belief) to ask for work to be taken off them without detriment. You want to create a safe space for them to speak up about workload and feel OK about asking for it to be taken off them, rather than a unilateral decision being made.

Supporting your team in developing and maintaining motivation is one of the hardest things to do as a leader. You will need to develop your ability to coach to support individuality, identifying individual purposes that fit for people and the larger business. Your goal is to transform the mental state of your team so that you can all identify limitations but without the traditional focus on doubt, blame and self-criticism. Aim to focus on solutions and shift to strengths.

Remember that as a leader, developing motivation via purpose, belief and clarity will benefit your team. Every time you help people in your team with their motivation you build a sense of team cohesion, team purpose, as well as the individual skills to address these issues more readily in the future.

If you would like help with coaching your team in motivation download this ‘Coaching Your Team to Build their Motivation’ guide

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