Whether you are part of a business that is seeking to make a profit or working with volunteers, motivating the people with whom you work is a difficult leadership challenge. We like to think that everyone is self-motivated, seeking to be and do their best in every situation, but that is rarely the case.

Two of the more accepted theories of motivation in Leadership, sometimes called “Theory X” and “Theory Y,” differ in their explanation of this, with the former assuming that people are basically lazy and need to be driven to do things and the latter assuming that people want to do well but lack opportunities and affirmation, but those are rather simple assumptions. They are good starting places, mind, but I think there’s a lot more to motivating people than assuming that they’re simply either lazy or tragically misunderstood.

Depending on your perspective on people, there are a lot of different things that can be said about motivation, but I’m going to bypass strategies based in fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and focus on a few of the better positive ones here. Here are my three favorite motivational tools, in what I believe is the order of their importance.

Provide Meaning.

Nothing that you can do with the people you lead is more effective than this. When people believe that they are a part of something larger; that they’re making an important contribution; that there is a plan in the works that includes them; and that they are valued as a part of a team that is working toward a common goal; they work a lot harder. People will sometimes make outrageous sacrifices when they truly believe in something, and if you really want to be effective as a leader you need to both provide that something and some solid evidence that the people you lead are an integral part of that vision. Churches and non-profits literally live off this principle, since they are all about altruistic visions, but every for-profit organization is working for a reason as well, and if they can share that reason in a meaningful way they can inspire people o work together to reach it. Of course, it has to be something more than “we exist to help our owners make as much money as possible,” but every business that deserves to exist and profit does so because it meets a perceived consumer need, and the people who work there should be in touch with both that need and their own importance in that broader scheme of things. By making such things a sort of “insider” information that is only shared with “management,” many businesses miss out on a critical opportunity.

Provide Time.

If you are ever in a position to negotiate for money or other perks at a job, ask for as much time off as you can possibly imagine. You won’t get it, but you might be surprised at how much better your requests for other forms of compensation might be received. For-profits place an enormous value on your time and their ability to control what you’re doing, and given the choice, they’d frequently rather give up money than time. Workers know this, too, so they are often more impressed with getting time off than with getting more money. What many people fail to realize, however, is that, for many employers, it is not the worker’s time that they covet, so much as the control that they can exercise over the workers through controlling their time. If you’re paying someone for their time, you want to feel that that time is being spent the way you want it to be spent. Unfortunately, that mindset is predicated in the idea that employees cannot be trusted, and such assumptions often prove to be self-fulfilling prophecies. If you get the impression that you’re not trusted, what motivation have you actually got to be trustworthy? A better, but less intuitive, way to work with time is to allow latitude on how time is used while working. This is often a principle applied to managers, and it’s no coincidence that so many of them, though not strictly required to, end up working a lot more hours than people whose hours are rigidly controlled. Yes, they get to BE managers through demonstrating an increased level of dedication, but that too can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even when you’re not working for money, time is a precious commodity. Volunteer organizations are often motivated by a variety of non-monetary needs, and “fellowship” and “attention” are two of the stronger ones. For people with such motivation, providing time to be together in ways that are not directly related to “getting work done,” (in other words, play time) can be extremely effective. People might also want some of your time or time to be in a place that is “special” to them in some way, or time spent with people whose lives they feel they are positively affecting. Providing such times, assuming that you can respect appropriate boundaries while doing so, can be extremely motivating and, in effect, will keep people coming back, even when they have no other reason for doing so.

Provide Compensation.

It’s no surprise that people often expect some sort of reward for doing the things you want them to do, but no one with whom you want to work works merely for money. The best people also work out of a sense of ethics, professionalism, pride in accomplishment, a love for responding to challenges, and other reasons. Because of that, attempting to “manage” by making promises or threats around money is very rarely a workable strategy. As they say, “That kind of thing will only make you work just hard enough to not get fired.” On the other hand, money is a way by which less creative people keep score, and if you’re in a situation where you can think of nothing else to offer, or dealing with someone who can’t think of anything more they want from their work, it is better than nothing. It’s also a way through which outsiders can place some sort of objective value on someone’s work. if you’re in a situation where you have a public role, such as a minister, director of a non-profit, or a teacher, it gives the public a way to feel that they have recognized your contribution, or to understand the value of your work. But if you are a leader of such people, and they’re worth anything, you know that the finances are really a small part of what makes them tick. The best employees need the money you provide in order to be able to express themselves through what they do, but still keep the lights on at home.

As for volunteers, they believe in something or they feel that they need something in their lives. That’s largely why they volunteer. You keep them motivated by identifying that belief or need and making sure that their behavior in seeking to fill their needs is regularly rewarded. If you and your organization are effective, their needs are reasonable, and the mood stays upbeat, it will be. A negative, defeatist culture that shows poor results is very scant compensation for most volunteers.

There is a lot more to say about motivating employees than I can cover here, but this is a bit of a start. If you really want to look closely at this subject, I suggest that you start by asking yourself what most motivates you and expanding from there. If you can understand yourself on this point, maybe you can start talking with others and seeing what best works with them. If you’re going to lead, it’s really worth doing.

 

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