A Better Path to Motivation

Wanting to do good work and test new ideas doesn’t require memes—we’re already wired to do it. But leaders can do more to make sure that enthusiasm isn’t stifled.

This post is running on Monday, which means it’s #MondayMotivation day. So if you’re following anybody who’s even remotely connected to the world of leadership and professional development, your social media feeds are likely now peppered with go-get-’em quotations and inspirational memes that are meant to sustain us through the week—at least until #ThrowbackThursday makes us nostalgic for better days and that carefree #FridayFeeling kicks in.

If only quotations and memes were enough to do the trick. Being told to dream big is hollow inspiration if your work life involves an always-full to-do list and an environment that often relegates new ideas on the back burner.

That’s a struggle author Daniel M. Cable addresses in his new book, Alive at Work. In an excerpt published at the Harvard Business Review, Cable looks at some of the issues that stymie motivation in the office, and roles that leaders can play in helping to spark it.

Employees want to be valued for the unique skills and perspectives they bring to the table.

One point Cable stresses is that people are naturally wired to try to do new things; our “seeking systems” move us “to learn new skills and take on challenging but meaningful tasks.” So if those seeking systems are absent in an organization, it may have less to do with the person than with the workplace environment. Shut down a person’s sense that doing new things and stretching is welcome behavior, and they’ll stop demonstrating it.

To counter that problem, Cable prescribes “three small but consequential nudges.” One is to get employees to voice the sorts of projects that they find most inspiring, preferably early after they’re hired. (“Employees want to be valued for the unique skills and perspectives they bring to the table,” as Cable writes.) Another is to give them opportunities to experiment within the roles they have. And employees can be moved by acquiring a sense of purpose around their work, perhaps by interacting with the customers (or association members) that their work is designed for. “We feel a sense of purpose when we can experience firsthand how our unique contributions help other people and allow the team to progress,” Cable writes.

The article is clearer about what helps employees feel motivated than about how leaders can best deliver that feeling. After all, there’s still that full list of must-do work to contend with. But all three of Cable’s suggestions all fall under the general guidance of “keep the lines open”: Make yourself available to hear what sorts of things workers want to accomplish—what they’re seeking—and create opportunities for workers to say them.

That is, so long as you don’t make it sound like a requirement. “Firms are more agile when they encourage employees to think up new approaches and try them out,” he writes, but “framing change and innovation as a chance to experiment and learn is better than framing it as a performance situation, which makes people anxious, risk-averse, and less willing to persist through difficulty.”

That’s a message that Natalie Fikes of the National Association of Professional Women delivered last week at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference: “When you’re leading people, everyone is a 10,” she said. “Find out how you can best utilize them and then the sky is the limit.” But the message resonates most strongly if the leader models that behavior as well: “Your teams are only going to do what they see you do. If there are no rules and your employees don’t know what to expect, they’re going to do whatever comes to mind. And guess what? That’s how ideas are formed. That’s how things happen. That’s how innovation occurs.”

Many organizations still operate under a familiar but narrow (if not stifling) system where an employee’s “success” is connected to hitting targets, and targets are attached to compensation, all handled impersonally in an annual performance review. A better system frees employees to test out new ideas, with direct encouragement from you as a leader. There are many ways to make that happen, but it likely boils down to a simple task: Asking them what they need.

What do you do to stoke motivation in employees? Share your experiences in the comments.

(ConstantinosZ/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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