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How To Motivate Employees In The Workplace

It's an age old question, one that managers are fond of asking: How do I motivate my people? The question is asked so frequently because getting the solution right is so vital to the continued success of your team and the organisation. Simply put, motivated employees will always be more productive than those who have limited engagement or pride in their work. So the question keeps on coming, with everyone wanting to know techniques for how to motivate staff.

We wish the solution was simple, but it's not. You may not want to hear this but the fact is, you cannot motivate your people. Motivation is internal, it's personal – and it's either there or it's not there. What we mean is that assuming you haven't made a mistake in the selection of your new hires, that there has to be that spark, that drive or will to succeed. And if it's not there, you can't synthetically put it there.

But that doesn't mean you can't improve employee motivation. Far from it, in fact there's plenty you can do. But get rid of the idea that it's something you 'do' to your staff. Instead, if there's a key to increasing motivation and engagement in the workplace it's this: create a climate or an environment in which people's natural abilities and internal motivations are allowed to come to the fore.

Improving staff motivation starts with getting people to engage in the right behaviours

The mark of a motivated and successful employee is that they've developed the habits (repeated behaviours) necessary for success. But as a leader, before you can address habits and influence people towards higher levels of productivity, you must ensure your people know what behaviours are necessary to do their job effectively. Because it goes without saying that the wrong activities will lead to the wrong habits.

There are three factors managers must consider when structuring their employees' jobs, as these will influence the activities in which they'll engage and lay the foundation for creating a motivational environment. If people don't perform there are only 3 reasons for it:

  1. Employees don't perform because they don't know WHAT the job is

    All jobs are composed of responsibilities and tasks – some jobs have more responsibilities and fewer tasks (eg, a senior manager role) while other jobs comprise less responsibilities with many more tasks. Whatever the mix is, ensure you communicate both: what they're responsible for and what tasks they must engage in order to achieve them. In addition they must know how they will be measured and the minimum standards they must live up to. This is basic stuff, but we often find it's neglected.

    For an employee to have a full understanding of their job, they must also understand how they contribute to the organisation as a whole. People should never view their job in isolation, because when they do, it's almost impossible to have much pride in it. They've got to see that they're part of a winning team, and as a manager, you can influence this by structuring the job within the context of the larger business and its objectives.
  2. Employees don't perform because they don't know HOW to do the job

    It goes without saying that people can only do the things they know how to do. To ensure this, it's essential to train your people so that they know what actions are required for success.

    The key word here is action. Companies more often educate their people rather than train them (unwittingly) by simply providing them with knowledge. Training on the other hand is about changing behaviour and getting action. In the training process knowledge is merely used as a tool or a vehicle. And in the process management must ensure that people are clear about what is required of them, and that there's no confusion, because if people are confused they will not take action. Confusion does not result from a lack of knowledge (that's ignorance) but rather from disorganised knowledge.
  3. Employees don't perform because SOMEONE or SOMETHING interferes with their desire or ability to perform

    The someones range from themself to management, family, friends and co-workers, all of whom can create 'task interference'. Task interference can also occur when something as basic as a new procedure makes an employee less productive; or it could be something the employee doesn't have, such as proper resources, tools or skills.

    In the face of task interference people may make do for a bit, but eventually they look to management for help or worse, they'll simply quit. Another source of interference comes from 'consequence imbalance' in which employees are doing the right things but are not getting recognition for it or they are doing the wrong things but are not being positively confronted about them. Mismanagement such as this creates an imbalance that interferes with people's desire and/or ability to perform.

The source of employee motivation comes from two questions people ask themselves

While ensuring that employees can freely engage in the activities necessary to be successful in their roles, managers must help them develop the right habits. This means helping them develop the right behaviours that they can repeat to form good habits.

In building a motivational climate or environment that will draw out people's natural motivations there are two critical questions that determine if anyone will engage in any activity long enough, and consistently enough, for it to become a habit. The first question people ask of themselves is:

"What are my chances of success?"

This is a very simple weighing of two measures: perception of one's abilities versus perception of the task's degree of difficulty. If a person believes that their ability exceeds the task's degree of difficulty, then they'll ask themselves the second question. But if they don't have belief in their abilities or what they're doing, if they don't believe that they can successfully accomplish the task, then they won't do it or stick at it long enough to succeed.

In cases where an employee doesn't believe they can be successful, managers will often ask us how they can reduce the perception of the difficulty of the task. In other words, they want to lower the second half of this equation to match the employee's lower perception of their abilities. But this doesn't work. So our advice to managers is that they should focus on building people's belief in themselves and their capacity to learn and grow – because internal belief is essential for anyone to perform at their best. And the key way to build belief is to structure the job, ensure people know how they are measured, provide training and coaching, recognise good performance and if it occurs, confront poor performance (immediately and in private).
When your employees believe they can successfully accomplish the task, the second question they will ask of themselves is:

"Where is the value to me?"

This time employees weigh their perception of themselves against their perception of the value they'll receive from completing the task. And if the value they believe they will receive is greater than the perception of themselves, they'll do the task.

To be clear, value does not mean money; unless they have absolutely no money, people don't work for money alone. In this case, value means self-esteem: when your employees see themselves as bigger than the job, they won't do it because (although they could) they don't believe that it will make them feel better about themselves; in other words, they can't derive sufficient self-esteem from it.

When employees don't believe they'll derive self-esteem from a task, managers may try to treat the wrong side of this issue by lowering an employee's perception of themself to whatever level their perception of value is. But this destroys your entire purpose of building people up by building their belief. Talk about demotivating people!

When your people aren't deriving the self-esteem necessary to do their job – meaning they can't summon their internal motivation – treat the other side of the issue and work on building their belief. Building belief is one of the holy grails of good management, so build their belief in the company, what it stands for, what it represents, its integrity and its products and services. You want your people to believe in what you do as a company and to clearly understand how they personally contribute to what the company is trying to achieve.

Motivating employees in the workplace is based on belief building

As we started out, managers often look to us for staff motivation techniques, ways to motivate employees and how to motivate a team, etc. They want that quick fix, that one 'thing' they can do to their employees to make everything better. So we hope we've impressed on you that there is no silver bullet; managers can't just 'do something' to light a fire under their staff to motivate them. As with most things in management, there is no quick or easy fix.

But by knowing what motivates employees, you can help them develop and draw out their own internal motivation. And that's done by building belief: in themself, in the company and in its products and services. Build a system of belief with every management approach or idea you implement in the business and you automatically win. In fact use it is as a test for any new approach you are thinking of implementing: 'will it build belief in self, company and what we provide to customers'?

Practical Sales Management and Leadership is a modular, cloud-based, training system designed to help sales leadership teams grow their ability to performance manage the sales force.  Preview a module from the training system here