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How to Motivate Employees as a Manager

By August 17, 2023December 15th, 2023No Comments
How to Motivate Employees as a Manager

People join organizations but leave managers. This probably isn’t the sort of advice you want to hear when you become a manager (I know I didn’t), but it’s true anyway.

Because people leave managers, being one that causes them to stick around is hard. You have to be ambitious and compassionate, hit your targets, and manage details and individuals while keeping the bigger picture in mind.

And, of course, you have to motivate people – perhaps the hardest task of them all.

You want motivation to be as simple as inserting a coin into a vending machine – tell someone they’re great and instantly their productivity triples.

Reader, if only life were so simple.

Motivation is way more complex than that. People are varied, complicated, with different pasts and different aspirations. There is no cookie-cutter way of encouraging people that fires up everyone equally across the board.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do – quite the contrary.

Rather than the perfunctory “good job” and “keep it up”, let me show you eight principles you can apply broadly to your organization to motivate employees.

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1. Make Employees Feel Seen and Heard

To motivate people, you need to make them feel seen and heard in their full humanity. It’s about moving from I/it relationships to I/thou relationships, in the words of Martin Buber.

An I/it relationship occurs between you and an object, where you’re seeing the other person as a cog in a larger machine. You kind of lose a sense of their humanity.

An I/thou relationship is when you remember just who this person is. You see them in their full humanity.

As a manager, if you can engage with others from a place of I/thou, it’s going to bring more love, zest, and joy into your team.

How do you do that? Well, it’s all about starting to see the people you work with as the full incredible, complex human beings that they truly are.

Do you know what this person stands for? Their internal and external motivations? Are you assuming positive intent about what this person is doing? Are you seeing them in the fullness of who they are?

I know this probably feels a little touchy-feely to some folks. But every time you remember that someone is trying their best and fighting their own battles, you connect to their humanity.

And by connecting to their humanity, you can light up their mojo and help them on the journey to becoming the best version of themselves.

2. Cultivate Psychological Bravery and Psychological Safety

Another big part of unlocking motivation is building working relationships that are safe, vital, and repairable, which is something I explore in-depth in How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.

Now, a lot of people will have heard of psychological safety – helping individuals feel safe and accepted at work.

But the flip side of this is vitality. Every relationship needs to be vital – meaning essential but also alive. Most people want their managers to push, provoke, and challenge them to think bigger.

You can take them to the edge of their competence and confidence so they feel braver, more courageous, and more motivated.

Safe and vital are often in this kind of play with each other. There’s a way that you can make a relationship so safe that it becomes coddled and nerfed.

There’s also a way that you can make it so dangerous that it becomes unsafe. But somewhere in the middle, balanced delicately between psychological bravery and psychological safety is where people thrive.

3. Give Employees Autonomy

In Drive, Dan Pink explores the factors that spark motivation – mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

A simple (yet surprisingly difficult) strategy to practice this motivation as a manager is to ask more questions. A good question increases autonomy (certainly), mastery (probably), and purpose (possibly).

Not all questions are created equal, of course. For instance, “Are you kidding me?” probably won’t help make you many friends. But having a few powerful and open questions that you use regularly will increase the impact of your leadership.

In The Coaching Habit, I talk through the seven questions you need to unlock motivation in your people. Importantly, coaching employees doesn’t need to be an additional task. You can have a coaching conversation in 10 minutes or less – it’s all about being lazy, being curious, and being often:

  • Being curious means taming your advice monster, slowing down the rush to give advice, and letting your people develop their own mastery. After all, teams made up of demotivated receivers and overwhelmed givers are less able to find and focus on the real challenge.
  • Being lazy is a call to stop doing everybody else’s work for them. Stop jumping in to fix it, save it, solve it, rescue it. Just slow down and give other people autonomy over the work that is theirs to do.
  • Being often is the idea that every interaction can be more coach-like – a conversation, one-to-one in a team meeting, a Slack message, an email, on the phone, or even walking to the office at the start of the day. Almost every conversation is an opportunity to keep nudging people’s growth and uncover their purpose.

When managers and leaders make effective coaching part of their everyday work, they help their employees unleash all the factors that drive motivation. And as a bonus, they also get to minimize their own workload because, as employees learn, they become better at their jobs and less dependent on you.

4. Make Room for Great Work

You can think of all the work people do as falling into three buckets:

  • Bad Work – waste of time, life-draining, and soul-sucking
  • Good Work – work that is likely to be productive, and useful, but isn’t very challenging
  • Great Work – work that has an impact, makes a difference and leaves the world a better place

When you become a manager, you hold the power to make a significant impact and skyrocket motivation within your team.

The key to doing this lies in helping people do more Great Work that has impact and meaning.

By helping them focus on work that awakens their mind and burns their souls, you foster a greater sense of motivation and engagement.

So, take the time to discover what truly matters to each of your team members as humans, and then empower them to unleash their ambitions within the context of your organization.

5. Encourage Creativity and Innovation

Encouraging creativity and innovation is a delicate dance—one that involves fostering both safety and bravery.

It’s about being courageous enough to venture to the edge, to push your team to make mistakes and try new things.

This willingness to challenge the status quo and question old truths is what sparks minor revolutions. And while many companies say they foster creativity and innovation, the truth is that systems within organizations and teams are often resistant to this kind of change.

Implementing a culture that truly encourages and supports creativity and innovation is actually really hard. But you can do your part by encouraging co-creation – staying curious for longer, listening fiercely, and sliding into action and advice-giving mode more slowly.

When you’re generous with your time and with silence, you’ll uncover more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, and more possibilities—which is the foundation of creativity and innovation.

6. Celebrate Successes and Failures (And Learn From Both)

I recently published my newest book – How to Work With (Almost) Anyone. Naturally, this necessitated a lot of work, and there were a lot of moving parts to contend with right up until the final button got pushed.

Overall, the entire process was a success, but there were also some things that didn’t quite go according to plan.

Now it’s natural to get upset that there were some hiccups along the way. But the truth is that failure is rarely ever wasted time – there’s a lot of value to be gleaned from knowing what worked and knowing what didn’t work.

When you know what didn’t work, you can come up with a game plan to do it better next time.

In my company’s case, we conduct an after-action review after each successful (or unsuccessful) launch.

After-action reviews are a process used by the US military.

After every engagement, whether victorious or not, the generals and commanders gather their team in a blame-free environment and ask simple yet powerful questions: “What happened? What did we expect to happen? What did we learn from this experience? What do we need to do now? And what can we do differently next time?”

They don’t tell their team the answers to these questions – they guide them there and let them discover it for themselves.

My question to you is, do you have a culture that allows people to strive and fail? How do you bounce back from failure? How do you learn from it? Is it a source of shame?

The culture around how you accept success and failure is a significant part of motivation, so learn to see it as a delightful gift.

When things go wrong, create a moment of reflection, stay data-driven, and help your people learn and grow for next time.

7. Master the Art of Communication

A lot of managers don’t communicate nearly as effectively as they think. They believe that by sharing their nuggets of wisdom and diamonds of insight, they’ll motivate their team.

The truth is people don’t really learn when you tell them something. They don’t even really learn when they do something. They start learning only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what’s happened.

To motivate your team, learn how to communicate better by talking less and listening more.

Asking questions in the right way is a great way to do this. When you channel your energy towards helping people develop instead of telling them what to do, they’ll feel more motivated to come up with a successful game plan.

8. Be by Example

In theory, things like making room for great work, holding a space full of curiosity, and finding failure fascinating sound pretty simple.

But to actually implement that behavior change is quite tricky because, at its heart, it’s about giving up some power and sense of control.

When you’re trying to stay curious, your advice monster is going to pop out of the dark and want to hijack the conversation. When you’re being generous with silence, you’re going to feel awkward and uncomfortable. When you let your people do great work, they’re going to stumble and fall.

The trick is to stay committed. Don’t just lead by example, be by example. Work in the way you want your people to, and they’ll respond in kind.

Start Motivating and Inspiring Your People

Ultimately, motivation is about bringing out the best in people. To do this, we need to build safe, vital, and repairable relationships while challenging people and promoting psychological bravery.

If you’d like to learn more about supercharging your team’s motivation and building the best possible working relationships, check out my new book How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.