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Leadership that Motivates

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Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth US President, recommended that nations “speak softly and carry a big stick.” His motivational theory goes all the way back to the farmer who prods his donkey forward with a carrot and a stick. But motivation is a lot more complicated than reward and punishment.


Motivation by Carrot

Every member of a team is likely to have a different motivator for working. Companies have spent small fortunes on individual recognition like “President’s Club” awards, personalized gifts, and rewards from contests, such as trips, group experiences, and bonuses. However, a 2014 report on employee motivation, with 2000 participants, found that the biggest motivator for employees was peer (not corporate) recognition and camaraderie; in second place came the intrinsic desire to do a good job. 

In third place was a corporate culture that promotes recognition, in the form of feeling encouraged and recognized by leaders (yet only 21% of employees felt they were highly valued by the company where they worked). The fourth place motivator was a feeling that the work had an impact. Thus, a team that values the contribution of each member—and that feels good about their work—is going to be highly motivated to deliver good work. 


Motivation by Stick

One theory of employee motivation encourages leaders to doubt the competency of an employee or team. In this theory, the employee or team burns with determination to prove the leader wrong. It also warns against indulging desires for fame, money, and other rewards because they can lead to poor decisions based on what is good for the individual, not the group.

In fact, this theory is based on an important truth: employees complain about the lack of external rewards but they are motivated by internal factors. That is, when asked why they leave a company, employees will cite bad managers or lack of advancement or low pay. When asked what motivates them, as described previously, they point to interesting work with interesting people. 


Motivation by “Soft Speech”

One of the main failures of any system of external reward and punishment is that behavior tends to revert back to previous low levels once the reward or threat is gone. Appreciation, however, is remembered long after the act and, if reinforced, will keep motivation high.

Appreciation is not the same as roaming through your team announcing, “Great job, good work, great job,” as if team members were 5-year-olds or puppies. Proper appreciation must be:


  • Specific. Thank, congratulate, and/or reward an employee or a team for a specific achievement: not for “great customer service” but for helping an individual customer solve a tricky individual problem. 
  • Honest. No one will be fooled if you honestly do not care; and no one will feel appreciated if you use appreciation as a prod to produce results—if you turn your carrot into a stick. Honesty is part of establishing an environment of trust. 
  • Appropriate to the person or team. Some individuals retreat from public praise but thrive with private praise; others are cynical about any type of praise; and still others prefer rewards like more pay or time off. Know whom you are dealing with. 
  • Communicated. If you are grateful, but never say so, how is anyone to know? If corporate appreciation depends on their knowledge about your team’s achievements and if team morale depends on knowing each individual’s achievements, share the good news. 
  • Achievable. Your expectations must allow for success, if only on the smallest scale, or the team will rapidly lose motivation. They may need to earn praise, but praise must be earnable.
  • Commensurate with the achievement. For example, if your company constantly tells employees to work harder or the company will fail, the team will burn out and the company will fail despite all that effort. If you praise every team member for giving 100% but grab the rewards for yourself or your favorite employee, you will destroy team motivation.
  • Part of a Whole. Appreciation from the leader is a great motivator but it is not the only one. Your team building must encourage the team to bond with and appreciate each other; your company as a whole must show appreciation of its employees; and you must model the behavior you want. If you are unmotivated, your team will be, too.



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