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Motivating People Starts with Having the Right Attitude

Most leaders know what strong motivation looks like. When I ask leadership development
clients to describe the type of motivation they’d like to see in their teams, they mention
qualities such as persistence, being a self-starter, having a sense of accountability for and
commitment to achieving results, and being willing to go the extra mile on projects or to
help other team members. But many leaders have little idea of how to boost or sustain that
level of motivation.

Many leaders don’t understand that they are an integral part of the motivational ecosystem
in their companies. The motivational qualities listed above appear most frequently when
employees feel valued, trusted, challenged, and supported in their work — all things that
leaders can influence. For better or worse, leaders’ attitudes and behaviors have a huge
effect on employees’ drive and capacity to perform.

One problem that gets in the way is a mechanistic, instrumental view of the human beings
who sit at our companies’ desks. Seeing compensation as the primary or only tool we can
use to motivate high performance is like trying to build a house with only a hammer. What
gets lost is that incentives, regardless of which ones are applied, filter through employees’
brains along with every other aspect of the employment experience. How employees
experience work from day to day has a bigger influence on their motivation than their
compensation and benefits package.

Another barrier to a leader’s capacity to motivate is the widespread, mistaken belief that
motivation is an inherent property of the employee — “they either have it or they don’t.”
In fact, motivation is a dynamic process, not a stable employee characteristic. When we
judge an employee to be irredeemably unmotivated, we give up on trying to motivate
them. A vicious cycle ensues, in which our attitude and behaviors elicit exactly those
behaviors we expect from an unmotivated employee, which in turn reinforces and justifies
our verdict and approach. Everybody loses: The organization is deprived of the employee’s
full contribution, the leader acts unskillfully, and the employee grows increasingly
disengaged.
Managers generally start out with the best of intentions. After all, whenever we hire
someone new, we expect that they will be motivated. Later, if performance or engagement
lags, we experience frustration at the “unmotivated, entitled” employee. It often goes
something like this: “As a leader, I started out caring very much about the emotional needs
of staff. Unfortunately, all this brought about was overentitlement and making it OK to use
your feelings to waste time and create a negative environment. I have evolved to care less
about feelings and more about getting the work done, period. As long as my expectations

are clear, people get paid, and they have a safe environment, there is no room for the rest
of it in the workplace.” I found this comment on a leadership article posted on the HBR
Facebook page, but it could have come from the mouths of the countless leaders I’ve met
during my career. Even if a leader feels perfectly justified in taking this approach, giving the
impression that employees’ subjective experience of work doesn’t matter will only serve to
dampen employee motivation.

It is entirely possible for leaders to learn to motivate even those employees they’ve given
up on. As an example, I recently coached a leader who’s responsible for a global
organization’s operations in an Eastern European country. A man in his fifties with a military
background, he complained of being saddled with an underperforming team member he
couldn’t fire: “He’s basically useless. All I can do is contain him so he doesn’t screw anything
up — and lean on my capable people to get our work done.” The leader gave the employee
routine, low-value work to do, didn’t share important information with him, didn’t bother
to meet with him, and never sought his input or contribution to important projects. “Why
bother with him? I can’t change him, and I don’t have time to waste on someone who’s
unmotivated,” he insisted at first. Through coaching, the leader came to appreciate that
these choices, which he initially saw as rational responses to a motivational deficiency in
the employee, actually worsened the problem. He realized that seeing his employee as
useless was only one of many possible perspectives he could take — and that it limited his
leadership effectiveness. After shifting his approach from containment to facilitation, he
saw substantial gains in the employee’s outward motivation and performance, to the point
where the employee became a valuable member of the team.

To make the shift that boosted his employee’s motivation, this leader had to be fearless in
examining his own thinking and patterns of behavior. He recognized and admitted that he
didn’t see his employee as a whole human being, but rather as an object and a problem. He
had to develop curiosity about what the situation was like from the employee’s point of
view. He had to experience that valuing his employee’s perspective opened up avenues
for motivation. As he started talking more with his employee, giving him challenging work,
seeking his input, and including him in important projects, the employee responded with
increased enthusiasm and commitment. “I can’t believe what a difference it makes,” he told
me after a few sessions.

I believe that most interpersonal problems that arise in the world, whether in relationships,
companies, or nations, come down to the fundamental difficulty humans have in seeing
things from others’ perspectives. When we make assumptions about what employees
believe and value, interpreting their behaviors according to our assumptions, we reduce
their humanity and their complexity. The very phrase “human resources” frames employees
as material to be deployed for organizational objectives. While the essential nature of
employment contracts involves trading labor for remuneration, if we fail to see and
appreciate our employees as whole people, efforts to motivate them will meet with limited

success. Instead of thinking about how we can control our employees, let’s focus on how
we can motivate them. A good place to start is by reflecting on the best boss you’ve ever
had. How did this boss make you feel? What did this boss do to earn your admiration? Try
to harvest some of that boss’s motivational strategies and make them your own.

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