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Trying to Motivate Your Employees? Forget It.

There's only one way anyone gets motivated. And it's not a big speech to rally the troops.
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I recently sent around a rather direct memo to a number of our marketing folks, suggesting that (a) being better prepared for certain meetings was a really good idea; and (b) that one great way to be better prepared was to make sure that they had seen and reviewed the videos and other materials that were going to be discussed in upcoming meetings beforehand - especially those sent around by me.

Not only would this improve their participation and the value of their contributions, but it would also prevent them from wasting the time of everyone else by insisting that we watch the videos again before getting started.

To me, it seemed to be a fairly basic, straightforward and obvious request. Apparently, for at least some people, I wasn’t being sensitive enough to how awfully busy they are and how hard it is for them to keep up with things. I guess that expecting people to do their jobs and telling them when you don’t think they have has fallen out of fashion and is bad for morale.

The whole episode got me thinking about motivation and incentives, and how too often, we’ve got it backwards. Way too many folks think that motivation is something that we do to other people. That it’s the boss’s job to be the team cheerleader and keep the troops pumped up. That motivation is an external process and a management tool that has to be religiously applied to keep the wheels from falling off.

Wrong. Real motivation comes entirely from within. People who pump themselves up stay pumped and succeed because passion and commitment and a true appreciation of why you’re doing something--and how it ultimately benefits you--don’t wear off. These things aren’t slogans, incentives or stupid party tricks that you read in some book.

There’s no way to excite or motivate or inspire people that’s not grounded in their own perceived self-interest. That’s the way it should be. No one’s really against anyone else in business - they’re just mainly interested in themselves and looking out for Number One.

So if you want to effectively influence others, the process is simple: You’ve got to talk about what they want (their future) and you’ve got to show them how to get it (the path). Then get out of their way and let nature take its course.  If they’re engaged and excited about their prospects, their projects and their futures, they will create far more compelling and comprehensive justifications for working their butts off than you ever could. Each of them knows exactly what’s important to them. You’d have to be a mind reader to even try to guess.

Instead of thinking about motivation as something you do to your team, think about what you can do for them. How can you remove obstacles, add resources, clarify directions and goals, or reduce friction so that they can see clearly what’s ahead of them, how to get there, and what’s in it for them? The smart ones will be highly and authentically motivated all by themselves. The others will soon be working somewhere else.

Last updated: May 14, 2013

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard A. Tullman is the CEO of 1871 ? Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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