Home, Work-Life

On Inspired Leadership- Employee Motivation

This post is from the series Managing to Manage while Learning to Lead.

I have always been a curious person, which means I love to learn. I also believe that learning is essential to growth, as a singular perspective is never enough, and being able to delve into the minds of many has never scared me away.

As a result, and as part of my own professional development, I have been focused on two things this year 1) pushing myself further – beyond my comfort zone- to explore and reflect on limitations that may arise and the accomplishment I can achieve and 2) attending seminars and workshops on leadership so I can share, listen, and become part of a community of voices.

The first goal has reignited my drive. I found that I was allowing myself to let others determine how successful I could be, allowing them to be gatekeepers to my growth and outreach. So, I changed that. Instead of waiting for permission, I am finding creative ways to ask for information, reach out to others, inspire conversations, and welcome feedback. See, if you are always waiting for permission to do what you know you are capable of or have been selected to do, you are placing far too much of your fate in the hands of others. Instead, trust that those who depend on you or those who selected you trust in your ability enough to get out of the way and discover, alongside you, what you can accomplish. And, to be clear, I am not talking about or suggesting ‘throwing elbows’ to be the first one out of a burning building, but instead recognizing that you are wherever you are for a reason, you exist with purpose, and you must decide to pursue that as no one is waiting around to press the play button in your life- they are far too busy managing their own life story.

The second goal has been inspiring. I have attended leadership seminars that are filled with laughter, ah-ha’s, the occasional teary-eyed realization, and a wealth of shared knowledge among a majority of individuals who truly care about the impact they have on others and the ways in which they approach challenges. In these seminars, the speaker always has workbooks that we use and refer to, and I watch as they worry or sometimes speed through the pages as though they are being monitored for page turns. However, what I hope they discover is that the workbook, while a nice tool and way to cement the learned info, is not where we learn. We learn from the conversations, the shared experiences, the moments where someone vents and others around them empathize, and the laughter that fills the room when we discover ‘we have all been there’.

Today, I wanted to take a few minutes and share some of my own ah-ha moments as I learn from this wonderful community of leaders and my own voice as well.

As managers and leaders we are responsible for data, numbers, and goal completion. But, we are equally responsible for developing the humans that contribute to those targets. 

I love data, as it drives clearer decision making, it serves as a benchmark for future endeavors, and it tells us where we are without abstraction. Admittedly, I am also very goal oriented. Give me a goal, be clear in perimeters, and get out of the way.

Of course, this is who I have been since I was a child. I recall one very early childhood memory when my mom came into me and my big sister’s room and announced that we were big girls and we had to stop sucking our thumbs. It was such a normal habit during bedtime that I remember wondering how I would stop. That night, before bed, I got one of my winter gloves and put it on my hand, then I slept with my hand under my pillow. From that moment forward, I never felt the need to suck my thumb again. I was three or four years old at the most, but also very determined to achieve the goal my mother had just given me. It was much harder for my older sister, who was only 18 months my senior, and as a result she had to have extensive orthodontic work to straighten her teeth as a teenager.

Point is, I was given a goal, I figured out a way to reach that goal, and I achieved it. As an adult and manager, I am much the same. I do; however, realize that not all people function the same way. Not all people care about data, outcomes, and targets. As a manager you have to adjust- which isn’t always easy or obvious at first – to develop those who focus less on the end result. Complacency is more common than we want to believe it is, and if you are very driven it can be difficult to understand why others aren’t.

So, how do we develop those who feel like they are standing still as we zoom around checking things off our list? We remind ourselves that professional development and employee investment are among the greatest gifts we are given as managers – to take a person from green to golden, to watch as he/she evolves, to allow for opportunity, and to shine a light on his/her achievements – is a gift.

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How we get our people from A to Z is critical, so focus your energy more on how to motivate instead of how to measure. If we do the former well, the latter will fall into place.

Motivating is key. For some of us we are internally/intrinsically motivated, others may be externally/extrinsically motivated, some may just want to ride the line of doing what is expected and never rise above that to offer more ideas, innovation, or inspiration. Your job as a manager is to figure out who is who and who might be inexperienced or malleable enough to cross over into a better professional lane. That is not to say you want to change people, but what I have learned as a manager is that many young people first entering the job market have no idea what to expect or how they fit in to the expectations. Thus, it is your job to see the potential they haven’t even tapped into yet.

If they are motivated by feedback, point out accomplishments often enough that they feel recognized but it doesn’t feel contrived. “Oh my goodness, you organized those pencils so well,” is not what you are going for. I have found that people who are ‘feedback motivated’ also have a BS meter, so you have to be genuine in your feedback if you want their buy-in. Because they have a BS meter, these individuals are also self-aware when it comes to their shortcomings- so be honest in that feedback by not sugar coating, but speaking to them on a human, let’s work together to get this solved, level.

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For those who are internally motivated (also known an intrinsically motivated), give them perimeters for goals (based on needs of the operation) and then let them create their own goals, set their own timelines, and hold themselves accountable. Internally motivated individuals do this naturally, and to be honest, they are their own worst critics at times. Knowing this as their manager allows you to empower them by giving them ownership of their goals, but also gives you the opportunity to be a sounding-board when they are feeling stuck or unable to hit a deadline. Keep the communication open, supportive, and positive – as these individuals can be top performers- but they can also be very hard on themselves. As self-critics, they also have a BS meter, so be conscious of that and stay away from ‘spinning’ things in conversations – you could lose your credibility.

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Unlike those who are internally motivated, externally motivated (also known as extrinsically motivated) individuals may need clearer guidance, direction, and consistent check-ins. They can fare well in competitive environments, as they tend to be motivated by others. In contrast to internal motivation that can lead to self-criticism, external motivation can lead to critiquing others harshly or added need for comparison. Spin may be your best friend in difficult conversations, as it takes the pressure off of shortcomings that this person may not be as self-aware of.  As a manager, keep the communication open, ask for details, and check-in from a friendly, non-judgmental place. Keep the focus away from too much comparison to others.

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Reward-seekers often look for more tangibles and less tangential. My reward-seekers remind me of those lucky kids who grew up with an allowance system in their home- which means there was some system of recognition every week they achieved their tasks, chores, or goals. And, no, salary does not always count, as it is seen as the baseline. This can get tough in lean times, where bonuses and pay raises aren’t a talking point. Instead, get creative and find ways to reward that are either low-cost or non-monetary, such as an extra paid day off, a certificate presented in front of others, a gift of small everyday supplies that you see him/her use. Remember that the reward, big or small, is proof of all their hard work, dedication, and contribution – so offering the opportunity for more professional development or an ‘in-title’ promotion can go a long way.

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This is not to say that we all fit perfectly into some box or that this covers all motivational styles- people can be combinations of styles and over time the ways in which we are motivated can change, and as a manager you also need to recognize that fact. Your feedback person may become your rewards person, just as the source of motivation, the external 20-something evolves into the internal 30-something, can change over time.

The key takeaway is that we, as managers, can identify ways to motivate our staff to rise to and own their potential. It also allows us to identify those who don’t fit in to the team or organization.

As the most senior position in our little workplace family/department, tough decisions fall to us. On certain days, it can feel like all we’ve done is mitigate issues. Make sure you are listening and observing in those moments as much as you are problem-solving. 

No one said it would be easy to manage or lead, right? Although many of us entered into leadership realizing it would be less of the nuts and bolts, less of the routine day-to-day, no one told us it would be or feel, at times, like constant pivoting. Sometime all that pivoting can create undue stress that in-turn takes away from the ‘human moments’ with our staff.

As we become better problem-solvers, we may also become less inclined to listen- as too often we are solving the problem as others are sharing the problem. When we stop listening, when we stop observing, it is felt by those we lead. It can be perceived as a lack of concern, a lack of trust in the person delivering the news, and a lack of interest in the time and opinions of others.

As we move toward goals within a fiscal year, problems will inevitably be revealed – know this and tell yourself, as the leader and problem-solver- to avoid knee-jerk reactions when things go wrong. This will help you see the difference between one-time missteps and patterned behavior.

Observe what is happening with the person delivering the bad news, and observe what is taking place in the environment as well. Are they nervous about something that really isn’t a big issue, like moving a deadline back a few days? Are there outside factors that are creating a need for that request, such as a sudden shift in work-based priorities or needs?

Being able to tap into what is ‘really happening’ is also a great way to connect with and, in turn, motivate your staff. If you have a knee-jerk reaction, it neither fixes the problem nor helps the person in need- it also creates unnecessary stress for you. If you listen, observe, and connect the dots it shows greater empathy and emotional intelligence for problem-solving. They will trust that they can come to you in the future, and with your honest feedback and support (i.e. a few extra days on a deadline is not a problem) they will learn how to distinguish between a serious issue and a simple fix.

This approach can motivate and empower your team to find solutions to problems they face, so the next time they have an issue they bring it to you with a solution in mind rather than just another problem for you to mitigate.

Again, the key here is learning how to lead your team, or employees, from a more human approach that motivates them rather than just measuring their productivity. It is about recognizing that we all need help, support, and to work in an environment where individuals trust in the ability of others. This is not to say that accountability doesn’t matter, as it is vital to any successful business, but the more we invest in our people, the more they will invest in turn.


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About the Author

Gwendolyn is a lover of travel and culture, having visited over 13 countries and having lived most of her adult life in Europe and Asia – where she explored, learned, and fell in love.

In her professional career she has worn the hat of director in International Education, professor, trainer, strategist, and fundraiser for nonprofits. Most recently she started lifeinherent.com and co-founded Laifeu LLC.

She earned an MA in Public Relations and a BA in Media Communications.


How do you motivate your employees? Let us know in the comments below. 

Suggested Reads: For some great books on this topic, check out this article on Corporate Culture with direct links to books that will help you develop your leadership style!

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