Business Leadership Today

How Leaders Motivate Their Team


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

While motivation is not the same thing as engagement, the impact of having a highly motivated team is similar to having a highly engaged team. 

Employee engagement refers to an employee’s level of commitment to and enthusiasm for their work and workplace. Engaged employees feel a sense of belonging in their organizations and a sense of purpose in their work. 

Engagement helps employees do great work, but it’s only part of the equation. Great leaders transform the positive feelings of engagement into high performance by motivating their employees. 

The key to being a great leader is being able to motivate employees to do great work. It’s not just about ensuring the day-to-day work of the team is done; it’s about inspiring each team member to engage mentally and emotionally with their work and turn that engagement into positive action that is aligned with the organization’s vision.

Leaders motivate their team by communicating effectively, giving feedback, recognizing contributions, being flexible, providing autonomy, encouraging collaboration, maintaining a healthy work environment, offering professional growth opportunities, and helping them find meaning and purpose in their work. 

This article will discuss the importance of motivation in the workplace and the key ways that leaders motivate their teams. 

Why Motivation Matters

The most important job of a leader is to motivate their employees to do outstanding work. Yet only 2 in 10 employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. 

Motivation drives employee success and plays a vital role in employee satisfaction. Employee satisfaction drives performance, which, in turn, has a positive impact on customer satisfaction. All of this is good for profitability.

When employees are motivated, they are better at adapting to change, better at collaborating, more willing to go above and beyond for a project, customer, or co-worker, and maintain a positive attitude at work. Having a team of highly motivated employees can also reduce turnover and absenteeism. 

Often, managers do not realize how necessary motivation is to lead well and ensure the organization’s future success. But, without the motivation needed to perform well, even engaged employees won’t reach their full potential. 

Leaders need to understand what really motivates their employees to best meet their needs and engage them with their work. They should work continuously to create the necessary conditions for their employees to stay motivated to do great work and help them identify and remove obstacles to doing great work. 

Extrinsic Motivations vs. Intrinsic Motivation

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. A certain amount of both is essential to leading high-performance teams. 

Extrinsic motivation is motivation to participate in an activity based on meeting an external goal, earning praise or approval, winning a contest or competition, or receiving an award or payment. In the workplace, salary and benefits are the biggest extrinsic motivators. 

Intrinsic motivation is defined as doing an activity for its inherent rewards rather than for a separable consequence. 

If a person continues to work at an organization because they love the work they do, not because of the salary, that’s an example of intrinsic motivation at work. That person may be intrinsically motivated to improve and develop their skills, even if they are not offered a bonus or promotion to do so, or work late, even when they don’t have to.

Intrinsically motivated employees aren’t just working for the paycheck. They have a sense of purpose in their work and genuinely enjoy what they do. Good leaders use strategies that boost intrinsic motivation, resulting in employees that are more invested in their jobs. 

Now, I’ll discuss some of the ways leaders motivate their team members.

Communicating Effectively

To motivate them, leaders need to be able to communicate effectively with their employees. Clearly communicating goals, objectives, job duties, and expectations provides the clarity all employees need to stay motivated to do their jobs well and with self-confidence.

For communication to be the most effective, it should be honest and respectful, and it should be mutually beneficial. Leaders should be skilled at receiving communications from employees and responding to them in a timely manner, and in a way that makes them feel truly heard. 

Communication that is motivational in nature, that encourages employees to engage in decision-making, problem-solving, and innovative brainstorming can help employees not only take a greater interest in their work, but also push them to perform better. 

Don’t forget, active listening is the most important part of effective communication. You can schedule regular meetings, coaching sessions, and one-to-one meetings every day, but, if you aren’t actively listening to your employees, these tools will not help them connect to their work. 

Giving Feedback

Employees need feedback on a regular basis to excel in their jobs and help them stay motivated. It provides not only job clarity, but also helps employees course correct when needed, develop an improvement mindset, and build confidence in their work.

The goal of this feedback is to help employees to do their best work, do it well, and better serve their co-workers. When done correctly, it should also boost employees’ level of job satisfaction.

To be most effective, feedback needs to be a two-way street, with leadership being open to constructive feedback from employees. 

This feedback can be hugely beneficial to leaders and the organization, and it gives employees a voice and helps them to build trust with leadership, which increases motivation. 

Recognizing Contributions

Because it is such a powerful tool for building engagement, a sense of belonging, and motivation, recognition should always be part of the communication process. 

When employees’ contributions are recognized, they are up to 10 times as likely to strongly agree that they belong with the organization, and 80% of employees report being more productive when recognition and rewards are utilized to motivate them.

Giving employees frequent, specific recognition for their accomplishments demonstrates that leaders value the work they do and that it isn’t going unnoticed. 

Acknowledging the impact of employees’ work through frequent recognition can be a highly effective way of engaging and retaining them because it improves their employee experience. Recognition can act as a buffer against stress, boost well-being, help employees take pride in their work, and stay motivated to keep performing well. 

Being Flexible

A recent survey of HR managers found that 70% of respondents cited flexibility as a driver of resignations, the most cited cause in the survey. Offering team members flexibility can not only reduce the likelihood that they will leave for another job, but it also helps team members stay motivated. 

According to Jesper Schultz, CEO and co-founder of BasicOps, this is because flexibility encourages workers to prioritize their own wellness and maintain a healthy work/life balance while being productive. 

During the pandemic, flexibility became a necessity rather than a luxury for many companies. After Schultz started allowing work schedule flexibility at BasicOps, he saw positive shifts in his team members’ overall mindsets and productivity, with employees showing higher levels of motivation and missing fewer days of work.

For many workers who worked remotely during the pandemic, this is the kind of flexibility they’d like to retain going forward. Offering remote and hybrid work options where feasible is a great way to meet an employee’s psychological need for independence and keep them motivated.

Providing Autonomy

Increasingly, workers want more flexibility in the form of autonomy, which is also strongly tied to motivation. 

Research has shown that motivated employees are more oriented towards autonomy and independence and are more self-driven than less motivated employees.

Autonomy can mean different things depending on the company. The goal of giving employees autonomy is that it meets an employee’s need to work in more self-directed ways when possible. 

By giving workers the autonomy they crave, you are forging strong, trust-based relationships with your employees and, at the same time, encouraging employees to hold themselves accountable and take ownership of their roles. This sense of ownership will keep them motivated to do their best work.

Encouraging Collaboration

Did you know that putting work into a social context, even when the work is done independently, can improve a person’s motivation to work harder? 

Research has shown that social cues that signal an invitation to work collaboratively fuel intrinsic motivation even when people work independently. 

The tendency for people to work together is a cornerstone of human culture because working with others provides us with significant benefits, both social and personal. When given the opportunity to work with others, our motivation tends to increase. 

For all its positive benefits, collaboration is more likely to succeed if it isn’t presented to employees as mandatory—employees need to feel trust in their teammates and a sense that working together presents a unique opportunity for producing great work as a team, while individuals are still recognized for their unique contributions.

Maintaining a Healthy Work Environment

Creating and maintaining a healthy work environment that is positive, inclusive, and collaborative is essential to keeping employees motivated. 

Toxic work environments fueled the Great Resignation, with many who left their jobs citing toxic work environments as the top reason for doing so. Employees, even top performers, will struggle to stay motivated in toxic work environments. If left unchecked, employees will leave.

Maintaining a positive work environment provides a positive employee experience and the ideal conditions for employees to do their best work. By ensuring the work environment is inclusive, employees have a strong sense of belonging that keeps them motivated and productive. 

It also helps to create a work environment that is healthy for everyone and that prioritizes well-being. 

Offering Professional Growth Opportunities

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that a lack of opportunities for advancement was among the top reasons US workers quit their jobs last year. The survey also found that those who quit and are now employed elsewhere are more likely than not to say their current job has more opportunities for advancement.

To feel motivated in their roles, employees need to be able to grow and develop their skills, build new knowledge, and see a clear path to advancement. To keep employees motivated to perform well and committed enough to the organization to stay, you have to demonstrate that you are committed enough to them to invest in them. 

Creating a clear path to growth, development, and advancement for employees shows employees that you want them to succeed. When they feel that you care about and encourage their growth and give them the means to grow, it can do wonders for motivation and performance. 

In-person and online training, cross-training, tuition reimbursement, professional organization participation, and career pathing are just a few ways leaders can help their team members grow.

Finding Meaning

Helping your team members to see a bigger purpose in their work, find meaning in their day-to-day duties, and see the impact of the work they do can have a positive effect on motivation. 

All workers have some purpose for showing up to work each day. Some just do it for the paycheck. Everyone has bills to pay, and it’s why we work, but it isn’t necessarily what engages us with our work. 

Beyond compensation, there’s an array of factors that motivate a person to show up for work each day at a particular organization. When a worker leaves an organization for a job at another organization for the same or less compensation, it’s obvious that it’s about more than a paycheck.

For many people, work helps them meet their need to accomplish goals and make a difference in the world. Having a job where the work one does is purposeful and has a deeper meaning beyond the daily tasks can keep employees motivated. 

Seeing the impact of the meaningful work they do is just as important for keeping them motivated. Acknowledging the impact of employees’ work through frequent recognition can be a highly effective way of helping employees see the deeper meaning of their work. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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