How to motivate your team: creating a bright future

How to motivate your team
After this fish is eaten, your team will need something else to care about

Have you ever been in a situation where your team seems unmotivated, listless and lacking in enthusiasm? As a leader of any sort, it’s not a good situation to be in because your team is what gets the real work done and if they’re not interested, you’re likely to be in trouble.

The signs of an unmotivated team

Over the years, I’ve noticed a number of tell-tale signs that indicate that a team or an individual isn’t really interested or are struggling with their work environment:

  • They don’t work harder to get something done in time. I will be the first to tell you that I don’t think people should generally be working long hours, especially if there is no good reason to. If work is planned effectively, I don’t think there is actually a need for it, *most* of the time. Sometimes however, deadlines bite, circumstances change and extra work will be required. In these cases, when your team just coasts along as usual without putting in additional effort, you’re left with no way to make that deadline.
  • Proactivity is disappearing. Sometimes it can be really helpful when a team member proactively fixes an issue or completes a task that they weren’t necessarily told to do. When nobody is doing this, it is likely that the work they are doing is not stimulating and they’re just not interested. When you hear responses like “Nobody told me to do that”, you might be dealing with a team that isn’t interested in doing any more than anybody instructs them.
  • Attention to detail suffers. When a team is disengaged, often the quality of the work delivered is low and usually I put that down to a lack of attention to detail. You look at what they’ve done and there are spelling mistakes, sentences that don’t make sense and parts missing. But technically, it’s “done”. When you are seeing a lot of these quality issues, you’re likely to be dealing with an unmotivated team.

How to motivate your team – Diagnose the lack of motivation

In many cases, when you see demotivated employees, take a look at their situation and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do they have work to do that is interesting?
  2. Do they have any long-term goals to strive for that don’t just involve keeping their job?
  3. Are they learning anything new?

If the answer to one or more of these is “no”, then you have a problem. Only a very rare team member can remain motivated without at least one of these three things.

Looking back on my own career, I have been in several roles and projects within organisations that I would never choose to work for (thanks, consulting industry!) However, I managed to remain somewhat motivated during these times because I had a long-term focus of some kind. In my case it was to be promoted, but that doesn’t need to be the case to motivate everybody.

This is even more important in “never ending” industries and operational roles. For example, in a service organisation you might deliver projects for clients. These projects will finish and then new ones will take their place. People need to have a future to look forward to that doesn’t just involve working on a million projects. They need to be learning and developing along side their day to day work.

How to motivate your team

I’ve never been a fan of buying things for my team or throwing big parties, because I don’t believe that these actions really motivate people over the longer term. Sure, I might buy people coffee once in a while for a job well done, but these are short term measures just to say “thank you” for something.

The secret to understanding how to motivate your team is to give them a long-term outlook. To give them a reason to care about what they are doing. You need to give them a future that looks positive or at least, interesting.

It’s not all about promotions and more money, either. In fact, these are often fleeting aspirations and can be unsustainable if you are working in a smaller organisation where there is no room for layer upon layer of leadership roles.

It’s difficult to give people a future (let’s face it, it’s only work), but here are some simple ways to motivate your team by giving them something to look forward to. Give them something that makes them feel as if they are going somewhere:

  • Understand what drives your team. Firstly, it is impossible to motivate your team if you don’t know what interests them, what they like or what their future aspirations are. Ask them. Find out. Then try to align the work that they are doing with these aspirations. If it’s hard to get the team to open up about these, then throw some different projects at them to see what works…and what doesn’t.
  • Get them to learn something new. Send your team on training or get them to research a new way of doing something that they care about. Don’t just get them to complete a course that they have no interest in. That’s not motivating, because they won’t be interested in using those skills in the future. Learning new skills means they can use them on future projects or even in future roles (good for the CV). It is more motivating for people to learn something useful than to collect fancy certificates. Stop worrying about whether they will develop new skills which may lead them to leaving your team. If they do, wish them well and say thank you.
  • Assign explicit responsibility. Some people aren’t naturally proactive. They find it hard to “step up” and take on responsibility without somebody asking. Sometimes, it’s good to explicitly ask them to be responsible for something in your team. They get to own it and they can have pride in seeing it done well. This can also make them the “boss” for a particular aspect of your team’s work. This makes them feel like their work is important and valued. Let your team members be in charge of something that they care about.
  • Go easy on the demotivating goals. Having a goal to “complete all of your projects within +/- 10% of the allocated time” is not motivating. However, a goal to research and utilise new technologies in an upcoming project might be. Demotivating metrics tend to be those that a person doesn’t have complete control over. When I was consulting, we used to have a “utilisation” target of 80%, which meant we had to be billable on client projects at least 80% of the time. The only problem with this metric was that it was not always up to you whether you were allocated projects or not.
  • Remember that this never ends. Once somebody is interested and motivated, that’s not the end of the story. Once they achieve their goal or learn and apply their new skills, they will need to find something else to interest them in the longer term. Achieving a promotion is nice, but once you’ve lost that future carrot to aim for, it is amazing how quickly your motivation levels can drop.

Most people need to learn and to feel as if they are progressing in some way to maintain their motivation, otherwise their thinking becomes focused on the short term. Instead of heading towards an aspirational goal, your team will start focusing on 5pm and the weekend.

The secret to understanding how to motivate your team is to give your team a future that looks interesting. Try and change “What’s the point?” to “What’s next?”

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