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Aug 21, 2020

What is someone’s motivation to exercise? It could be to lose weight, or it could be for health reasons, or it could be to recover from an injury. If you don’t know, you won’t know how to motivate that person to work out. 

The same is true with motivating each person on your team. Everyone has different reasons for why they want to succeed in their job — and those reasons often correlate to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that individuals have different layers of needs that drive them. Those same needs apply to their careers:

  • Physiological needs (a fair income, safe workspace) 
  • Safety needs (the sense of stability within their role, job security) 
  • Belongingness and love needs (their relationship with their team and manager)
  • Esteem needs (knowing they are doing a good job)
  • Self-actualization (being promoted or being given new opportunities)

People aren’t just motivated by different needs. They’re motivated in different ways that go beyond the carrot/stick theory, or the promise of reward vs, the threat of punishment. Some people prefer a drill sergeant or personal trainer telling them to “go, go, go.” Others prefer the supportive “I got you” approach of Stuart Smalley: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

The problem is, we make assumptions about what motivates people and how to motivate them, usually based on our own preferences. 

So for starters, if you really want to know what motivates your team, ask them! This is a survey I have used in the past to gain such insights. It asks each member of your team to rank what is most important to them in their job. You can wordsmith it based on your company culture or what makes the most sense for your team. But don’t assume something isn’t important to your team and cut it. Let them tell you its importance by ranking it. 

Now let’s talk about how to use different methods to motivate people.

When People Enjoy Meeting Goals the Most…

Going back to Maslow’s pyramid, goal-oriented people are motivated by “esteem needs.” They want to know they are doing a good job, that they are hitting expectations and have a chance to over-achieve. Contests are a great way to motivate such individuals, particularly salespeople. You can also have a lot of fun and be creative with contests. Think pop culture references, or something that would be meaningful to your team.

One of my favorite sales contests was one in which whoever had the best day (specifically the number of calls they made) got to have a huge floating fish that the manager had won at a carnival. The thing was so tacky, but the team loved it. And it was a badge of honor to have that fish fly over your desk for the day! 

At my last company, we created a poster of a mountain and used our mascot, Hanz the Yodeler, with a different colored hat to represent each team. As teams got closer to their goal, their Hanz moved up the mountain. Whoever got to the peak first won. The teams loved it and every day checked to see which Hanz moved and then strategized on how they could pull ahead of their competition. 

You have to make sure, however, that you have culture in which a contest wouldn’t end up demotivating people — remember, it works best for goal-oriented people. You also need to ensure that rules are clear and that people can actually influence outcomes ethically. For example, a contest within recruiting may not work because at the end of the day, it might motivate the wrong behavior and force a hire that is not right.

Meanwhile, another way to motivate goal-oriented people is to give them a target to hit, show them the path to that target, and then have recurring meetings to talk about their progress and how they are moving closer to the goal. For instance, I worked with someone who was extremely goal-oriented. She was given a project to roll out a new system for the company. We worked together on the plan with specific deadlines and potential blockers. Each week we met to discuss her progress against the project plan. Her ability to come to those meetings with things checked off the list was a huge motivator for her.

When People Prioritize Making a Difference…

For people who want to know their work is making a difference, tie their work directly to a broader initiative or a strategy that is highly important to the company (like client satisfaction) or explain how their work will help others do their work better or easier. I correlate this to the need for “belongingness and love.” Make sure to address the emotional component of the work because that will be the reason why people will push themselves.

I worked with someone whose goal was to win one of our peer-nominated values awards. He wanted to know that the work he did helped his team members and made their time at our company more enjoyable. So for every project he was assigned, even when it felt mundane, I mentioned how it was going to benefit a team or a group of individuals. Consequently, he would perk up and give that project his all.

This is also a great opportunity to bring your values to life (not just because this person wanted to win our values award). Your values, your mission, employee value proposition, whatever drives your culture should be a living thing in your organization. 

For someone who wants to make a difference, you can highlight how their work reflects the values of the organization. Many years ago, I worked with a person who lived and breathed the company values. He would use them any time he had to make a tough decision. It was like throwing a card down on a table. He would say “If we really believe in X, then this is what we should do.” He often was in the middle of some tough conversations, but he was motivated to negotiate those difficult meetings because he truly believed in what we were doing and our broader purpose as a team.

When People Value Development Most…

Many employees are career-oriented, focused on getting a promotion, moving into a new role, or getting key assignments. They will be motivated by development opportunities that tie to the skills needed to advance, the need for self-actualization.

I once worked with a manager who had someone on the team who was struggling to stay engaged. This employee realized that her current role wasn’t right for her anymore, but there wasn’t a clear path to a new position given business needs. So the manager and I worked together to find small projects that she could work on. 

A few months later, there was a shift in the business, and the need for a role like she was targeting became available. It was hers! Had the manager not found those little assignments to keep her going in the meantime, she probably would’ve left the organization.

The Role of Recognition

Finally, motivation and recognition go hand in hand. So it’s also important to consider how each person likes to be recognized. For instance, it can be totally demotivating if you celebrate someone in front of a large crowd when that is actually their worst nightmare. I have literally seen people pull back from their work when the threat of a public shout-out was on the table. Likewise, if someone is money-driven, a pat on the back or a kudos email will only get you so far. They may nod and thank you the first time, but the action isn’t likely to motivate them. 

The main takeaway should be that each person on your team is different. What motivates them, what is important to them, how they like to be recognized — they’re all personal. Also, needs can change over time. Right now, the pandemic, economic uncertainty, social injustice, and an upcoming contentious election have thrown everyone upside down. 

So take the time to check in with your team and find out what they need today. Their answers will probably be different than what they would have said six months ago, or what they may say in the future. So be sure to ask — and then personalize your motivation methods.

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