Every time I teach workshops for managers, I hear one question over and over: "How can I motivate my employees?" It's an important question. Motivated employees are more likely to think creatively, go above and beyond, hold themselves and others accountable for results, work autonomously, want to learn and grow, feel personally connected to the company, and ultimately drive the business forward.

It's also not surprising that supervisors struggle with this challenge. According to a Gallup poll, only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. Disengaged employees are, at best, less concerned with productivity, profitability, safety, customer satisfaction, and quality than their engaged colleagues.

At worst, they make sure that everyone knows how frustrated they are, taking up a disproportionate amount of time, energy, and resources. They also undermine motivated employees' efforts to make a positive impact. 

Why is that so harmful? Because negative emotions are especially contagious. Research shows that when people share a common dislike (such as, "I never get any appreciation for my work. You too, right?") those individuals bond over that connection. Disengagement becomes the basis for that connection -- and for recruiting like-minded employees to hop on the negativity bandwagon.

So back to the original question that I so often hear from people managers, and that you might be wondering about, too: "How can I motivate my employees?"

The good news is that it doesn't have to be a mystery because you can often get that information directly from the source -- your employees themselves. The bad news is that you probably can't get helpful information just by asking them, "What motivates you?"

Why doesn't that simple, straightforward inquiry get you the insight you need? One reason is because your employee may not have the self-awareness to know what motivates them beyond money, promotions, or flexibility. And if they are aware of what motivates them, they may not know how to articulate it clearly.

Furthermore, your employee may not want to tell you the truth. They may be inclined to tell you something they think you want to hear, such as "I'm motivated by taking on new challenges and executing with excellence" (and what boss wouldn't want to hear that?) rather than "I'm motivated by advancing my career as quickly as possible." 

So rather than asking "what motivates you?" and getting no response, an unclear response, or an untruthful response, here are three questions to ask instead:

  1. "What is your favorite project you've ever worked on, and what made it your favorite?"
  2. "What was the best team you were ever a part of and what made it the best?"
  3. "Which of your former bosses brought out the best in you? What did s/he do or not do that you appreciated?" 

Let your employee know that this could be from any part of their life -- a college project, their last job, a volunteer gig. Once you ask one of these questions, your job is to really listen to what they say to uncover the motivating factors that you can leverage moving forward. 

For example, if your employee expresses that their favorite project was organizing a 5K race for their kids' school, ask them what they enjoyed about it. Listen for clues about creativity, autonomy, fun, appreciation, or impact.

If the best team your employee was ever a part of was at her last job, working on a marketing campaign for a tough client, inquire about what made that team experience so positive. Pay attention to words like challenge, collaboration, achievement, recognition, or loyalty.

And when your employee tells you that his first boss right out of college helped him become the person he is today, see if you can pick up themes about what worked, such as honesty, flexibility, decisiveness, learning, or stability

Your next step is to take those clues and cues about what has motivated your employee in the past and ask them which of these still feels important to him or her today. You can then come up with a plan to align their job with more of what drives them (and less of what drives them crazy). You may also need to manage some expectations for those motivators that are unlikely to be met right now, or in their current role, or in this company overall. 

Motivating employees is an important role for any people leader. But it doesn't have to be a mystery to figure out how. Ask your employees to partner with you to uncover what drives them. After all, having an engaged employee is a win for both of you.