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How to Motivate Your Employees

by | Mar 13, 2017

How to Motivate Your Employees

Psychologists have identified three elements proven to motivate people.

Employers who know, respect, and enable these elements are more likely to develop people who care, deeply, about their work:

1. Autonomy

A psychologist named Edward Deci and his colleague, Richard Ryan, studied employees at an investment bank, analyzing their drive and initiative. The goal was to better understand what motivated people to do good work.

They found that when managers provided employees with something called Autonomy Support, people became more satisfied and effective at their jobs compared to a control group.

What is Autonomy Support? It’s a method that has authority figures (e.g., managers, teachers, parents) give their subordinates space and choice, complimented by encouragement and thoughtful critical feedback.

It’s the opposite of control: It’s freedom, independence.

The Lesson: Independence is motivating.

Autonomy is a human desire at every life stage, from grade school to college to work and beyond. In short:

Motivation increases when people feel in charge.

Motivation decreases when people feel forced to do something, or if they’re highly controlled while doing it.

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How to start: Instilling independence.

If your employees work in a stifling environment, giving them space may renew their sense of purpose. Start here:

  1. Check-in less often. As a leader, proactively contacting workers to offer support or guidance encourages the notion of a safety net, reminding employees that they have a backup plan: You.

    You’ll always be there to bolster their efforts, to support their responsibilities, to take charge. And while that may technically be true, constant reminders can diminish an employee’s perceived ownership of work, ebbing their ambition and motivation.

  2. Solicit growth feedback. When you talk to your report, ask him or her about the problems they’ve solved and, ultimately, what their experience has taught them.

    Then ask them what they would like to do with their newfound experience. Then listen, letting what they say inform their next independent opportunity. This process will keep your people engaged throughout their development, as they’ll gradually realize that new, challenging experiences can open doors.

2. Value

Ever heard the one about Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, and Larry Kenyon, an engineer who worked on the original Macintosh? The one where Jobs approached Kenyon, upset that the prototype took too long to boot up…

“Can you make it faster?” said Jobs. Kenyon, in so many words, told him no. “If it would save a person’s life,” said Jobs, “could you find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?” Kenyon, in so many words, told him yes.

That’s when Jobs told him he could save at least a hundred lives—every year.

“If five million people used the Mac,” said Jobs, “and it took ten extra seconds to turn on each day, that adds up to about 300 million hours a year. That’s a hundred lifetimes!”

After this perspective shift, Kenyon eventually got the machine to boot up 28 seconds faster.

The Lesson: Meaning is motivating.

Typically, the more impactful our work is, the more passionate we are about doing it well. In short:

Motivation increases when people feel they’re doing something that’s in line with their values, something that’s important to them.

Motivation decreases when people feel they’re doing something pointless, or insignificant.

How to start: Instilling meaning.

Working 40 hours a week comes to about 80,000 hours over the course of a career. If you don’t consider your work important or meaningful, it can be a chore. A draining, stressful chore that lasts half a lifetime.

As a leader, it’s important to 1) recognize when workers feel this way and 2) help them change their perspective. Start here:

  1. Illustrate the hidden impact. Larry Kenyon was passionate about his craft, about building the Macintosh. That’s why Steve Jobs hired him.

    Ardent as he was, however, Kenyon likely would not have understood the value in shaving mere seconds off the boot time had Jobs not shifted his point of view.

  2. Illuminate a path up. Unmotivated workers often feel stuck, stagnant in a position that lacks a clear growth path.

    Therefore, leaders that map out a career plan for their people – complete with long-term goals and progress milestones—will develop more engaged workers, motivated to excel.

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3. Competence

In 2006, Greek researchers began studying nearly 900 students, analyzing their relationship with athletics over a two-year period.

They found that students who perceived themselves to be “Good” at a specific sport or activity (e.g., running, swimming, yoga) were more likely to keep pursuing it, to keep practicing. The more they practiced, the better they became. The better they became, the more they wanted to practice.

These findings were supported by similar patterns that emerged in musicians and academics.

The Lesson: Confidence is motivating.

Success begets interest. In short:

Motivation increases when people feel they’re good at something, or steadily getting better.

Motivation decreases when people feel unskillful, inadequate, or ineffectual at something.

How to start: Instilling confidence.

Confident employees are driven and self-motivated, competent. That said, it often takes a skilled manager to implant that confidence, especially in younger, less experienced professionals. Start here:

  1. Celebrate small wins. According to Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, “Of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

    In other words, recognizing achievements, no matter how small, make people want to push on.

  2. Encourage people to fail forward. Even small setbacks can affirm feelings of ineptitude in an insecure employee.

    Leaders who encourage their people to learn from mistakes, also known as failing forward, are drawing out ambition.

Too long; didn’t read:

In summary, independent, confident people doing what they believe to be meaningful work are typically the most motivated employees in your company.

Motivate your people.

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