A leader’s ability to motivate a team is important for maintaining productivity, but also to improve the chances that the team enjoys coming to work every day.
Many people focus on the productivity and “getting things done” part. However, if your teams don’t enjoy what they do or the environment they work in, then motivation is going to suffer.
Sustainable Motivation Is the Aim
When motivation drops, that’s when leaders tend to resort to the “Do it by Friday or you’re fired” style of motivation. Sure, this might work temporarily, but it’s not sustainable.
I’m a big fan of sustainable motivation. You know, the kind of motivation that lasts. Short-term motivators like bonuses, threats or fancy dinners are nice to celebrate milestones, but their effects won’t last for long.
I believe much of sustainable motivation comes from leadership behaviour. So let’s take a look at some of the leadership traits that lead to more sustainable team motivation.
5 Leadership Traits Leading to Sustainable Motivation
1. A Positive Attitude
Positive leaders have a way of making things seem better, even when they are not great. Positive leaders tend to see issues as “challenges” and focus on improving the status quo.
Without a positive attitude, it’s easy for teams to become overwhelmed with negativity. If all you hear is bad news, you tend to get an “echo-chamber” effect where you feel like everything is bad.
It is easy to feel negative when you are surrounded by problems. However, leaders need to try hard to remain positive, because a positive attitude can be contagious.
Thinking from a team perspective, if your leader thinks there is no hope and everything is doomed, then how would you feel motivated to push through your challenges?
2. A Realistic Mindset
Going hand in hand with a positive attitude is being able to maintain a realistic mindset. This leadership trait means that you acknowledge issues and problems where they exist. It also means you are able to set realistic targets that don’t overwhelm your team.
Leaders who are overly positive and don’t openly acknowledge the reality of their situation can seem delusional. Being perceived as a delusional leader is not ideal, because it can lead to team members beginning to lose trust in your judgement.
An unrealistic leader can also cause team stress when they create unachievable deadlines, just to please someone above them. While some stress can be helpful for motivation, too much can actually damage it.
Related post: How to Use Work Pressure to Help Your Team Thrive.
Being Realistic Is Good For Wellbeing
It is better to be realistic about the capacity of your team, and to take a longer-term view of their wellbeing and motivation.
Realistic leaders will push back on unrealistic expectations where possible, to prevent their teams from being overwhelmed.
They will then work to set achievable milestones, which may include a “stretch target” but aren’t so ridiculous as to make their team lose hope!
Resource: If you would like to improve the way you push back on unrealistic demands, Thoughtful Leader can help. Check out the Managing Upwards eBook, for tools and techniques to build confidence and help you say “No”. You and your team deserve better… get the eBook today.
3. A Focus On Empowerment
Leaders who empower their teams tend to improve motivation because they give team members opportunities to “step up” to tasks that may normally be outside of their role.
Empowerment means letting people do their work without micromanagement and trusting that they’ll do a good job. This can be a powerful way of motivating people because it can sometimes create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where showing trust leads a team member to perform better.
Related post: How a Self Fulfilling Prophecy Will Make or Break Your Team.
Empowering leaders often delegate easily, because they like to show trust in their people. Delegation can be a great way to develop skills in team members. It can also give them experience in tasks they may not get to do every day.
Related post: How to Delegate Work to Improve Your Team.
A Rigid Hierarchy Can Damage Motivation
Empowering leaders tend to have less respect for hierarchy. They believe people can step up and achieve good things, even if their role is at a lower level of seniority than what the task normally requires.
Personally, I find rank and rigid hierarchies tiring and frustrating. I prefer people to work on things because they’re capable and keen, not because they have a certain job title or rank.
I find motivation is easier to achieve without a rigid hierarchy, because people can more easily step up and improve their skills, potentially helping them travel further on their career path.
I’ve led “junior” people in the past who have been far better performers than their senior counterparts, simply because the attitude and enthusiasm they brought to the job set them apart.
4. Honesty & Integrity
It might sound like honesty and integrity are leadership traits that don’t have much to do with motivation. However, when you lead with honesty and integrity, team members can be proud of what you and the team do.
Leaders who try to cover up mistakes or pretend things are OK when they aren’t tend to strain team trust.
Honesty goes a long way, especially when you can acknowledge your shortcomings and team problems.
Being honest means that team members feel they can be open and honest as well. When leaders hide the truth, team members will feel as if they need to conceal problems.
This creates the problem of “emotional labour”, where people experience stress, because they feel like they need to put on an act, rather than be themselves in the workplace.
Honesty and integrity in leadership takes courage, and is something team members can look up to. This can inspire greater commitment within the team. The opposite can create disengagement, a lack of pride and can damage motivation in the team.
Confident leadership is one of the leadership traits that team members can draw their own confidence from. A confident leader gives the perception of being in control, and being able to handle anything that comes.
This can be motivational for teams because they feel as if they are heading in the right direction. Confident leaders are more likely to push back on unreasonable demands and fight for their teams. This tends to build trust and make team members feel safe and secure in their environment.
Motivation can suffer when team members feel threatened, as they tend to worry and feel insecure. A confident leader can reduce these feelings of vulnerability.
Of course, this only works when coupled with some of our other motivational traits. A confident leader with no honesty or integrity can still ruin team motivation.
Related post: How Confident Leadership Helps Teams Thrive.
Balance the Leadership Traits for Best Results
These leadership traits are good focus areas for any leader, if you’re looking to improve team motivation.
However, they don’t work in isolation, and you need these leadership traits to be kept in balance. Any one on its own won’t really make the difference.
For example, a super-positive but unrealistic leader is likely to lose the trust of their team. And it’s no good being honest when you lack confidence.
Short-term motivation is fleeting, and doesn’t make the difference. But if you can achieve sustainable motivation in your team, that’s something to be proud of.
What are some other leadership traits that encourage team motivation? Add them in the comments below, I’d love to read your ideas!
Alternatively, if you would like to ask a question or need some help, you can send me a private message through my contact page.
Elucidating or fleshing out how the goal connects to a larger picture is also part of team motivation. If the team can see how their efforts connect to a larger goal (rather than just the battle at hand), it can provide fuel for the long haul. How the efforts connect or tie into a larger goal, brand and/or brand mission are good to keep in mind and define.
Great point Hannah. Connecting to a larger goal can give team members “Task significance” – that their job makes a difference!
Thanks for the comment.
Thanks Ben for an insightful article, and to Hannah for the excellent addition; My question: how would you (in practice) make the connection of the team job to a larger goal? If the team is working on a module where this connection is not that obvious because the task at hand is seen as a miniature part in a complex whole? We could describe a literal connection but that is too obvious to be motivating.
Good question Faris, sometimes it’s not obvious how a team’s work supports the bigger company goals, especially when the team forms part of a supporting function. In my experience, helping people learn more about how the organisation works as a whole is helpful. In practice, organising team visits to see other parts of the business in action, or visiting operational sites (if that applies to your company) can be a great way to make team members feel like “organisational citizens” and part of something bigger than just their little team. If you provide them with that context, sometimes they can make their own connections to the bigger picture.
Another way is to search for evidence of how the team’s work has made a difference to somebody. Recently I spoke to someone who had just written her company’s new policy for managing mobile phones provided to staff. She said she recently heard of an example of where they had applied and enforced the new policy, which resulted in less confusion and quicker resolution of an issue. Now – I know this might not seem like much (it’s not saving lives or anything), but this person could see that their work had made *some* difference, which helps people see a connection to the bigger picture.