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How Can I Motivate My People?

Many leaders voice this question, sometimes in a perplexed, almost pleading tone.

In his best seller “Good to Great”, Jim Collins challenges this preoccupation of so many leaders – the anxious attempt to motivate people. His study of highly successful leaders revealed that if you have the right people on the bus, and they’re in the right seats, you don’t need to be concerned about motivating anyone.

OK, but what DOES work?

In “The Flight of the Buffalo”, Jim Belasco and Ralph Stayer cite principles of leadership that begin with a profound statement: “I am the problem”. This is not meant as a self-condemning judgment. Rather, it points to the reality that you work in a system of interlocking relationships, and that the one certain way to impact positive change is to identify and shift your own participation in that system.

For example, if you’ve been asking “How can I motivate my people?”, recognize that the question itself can signal some underlying, problematic attitudes. Here are some of the potential implications about the leader who asks this question:

• You are seeking to change others vs. changing yourself.
• You are an over-functioning driver who tends to undermine the initiative of others.
• You tend to see others as slackers – or at the least, not nearly as dedicated as you are!
• You are blind to the ways in which you demotivate those around you.
• You are trying to force square pegs into round holes, willing people to fit your vision.
• You give too many answers and ask too few questions.
• You possess people (“my” people) rather than partnering with them.

Certainly not a flattering list of attributes! But the truth will set you free – and set “your” people free as well.

Once you’ve acknowledged and modified some of these attitudes, then turn to those you lead. LISTEN! With an attitude of curiosity and openness, engage people one-on-one with questions like these:

• What would you change about your responsibilities that would make your work more exciting and energizing? What would you want to do more often? Less often?
• In what areas would you rather have more authority, more discretion?
• What would you need from me that you’re not getting? What would you want me to do more often? Less often?
• Is there any other job in this organization that you’d rather have? Including mine?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your level of confidence in the direction of the company? What would you do differently if you were in charge?

The necessary companion to such provocative questions, of course, is exquisite listening for the real answers. This requires you to suppress the thought that you already know their answers. Listen with “fresh ears”.

Then, having asked and listened, monitor your emotional reactions to the answers you’re hearing!

This inquisitive process, persistently pursued over time, will reveal what is needed.

I recently spent two days at an offsite retreat with a client – an established team integrating a new leader. The discussion deepened notably when this leader asked each of the team members to say, “What is really important in your life? And where do you see yourself in five years?” He asked them not to restrict their answers to work. It was the turning point of their time together. In effect, he was asking about motivation, inviting them to articulate what they wanted and needed. This was far more than a cathartic exercise. Vitally important information emerged about their desires and goals. This was a striking, genuinely caring way to determine if he had the right people in the right seats, and to ascertain what they wanted and needed from him. The team left the two days with a sense of energy and commitment.

Then comes the courage to act:

1. Focus on the changes required of you. This may include letting go of controls that choke the creativity and initiative of ambitious subordinates. It may mean surrendering the belief that no one does it as well as you. It may mean becoming more of a coach than an impatient critic.

2. Assess the “fit” of the people you’ve quizzed. Are these the right people? How have they responded to your invitations to be self-motivating? If you’re not convinced that they belong, you do neither yourself, nor them, nor the company any favors by continuing on a path of denial. The number one regret expressed by leaders is this: “I retained an incompetent person in a key position for too long!” I’ve also observed this remarkable truth regarding questions of competence and fit: What is truly best for an employee in the long run is consistent with what is best for the company.

3. Align the formal and informal reward systems with approved goals identified by the subordinates. Rewards alone don’t create motivation, but they can certainly reinforce or undermine it!

You will know you are succeeding when you see signs like these:

• Less reliance on you for answers and permission.
• People moving with a sense of purpose, direction and vibrancy
• People taking initiative and amazing you with results.
• Less stress in your life and theirs
• The sense that maybe, just maybe, this place could run without you! (And if that thought frightens you, you may have stumbled upon the most significant block to their motivation!)

All in the name of freedom – for them and for you!


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