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Motivation Conversation Guide

Spending time on motivating your people can seem like a luxury when your inbox is probably already overflowing. But nothing could be more important. When people are engaged, they not only make a greater contribution to the bottom line, it brings important benefits to your team and to you, too.

Motivation Conversation Guide

Spending time on motivating your people can seem like a luxury when your inbox is probably already overflowing. But nothing could be more important. When people are engaged, they not only make a greater contribution to the bottom line, it brings important benefits to your team and to you, too.

What does this mean you need to do?

As a first step to increasing employee satisfaction, it’s important to check there aren’t any baseline needs missing for each of your team members. Even if you’re the most inspirational manager on the planet, it’s going to be difficult to motivate someone if these essentials aren’t in place. Typically, baseline needs include receiving fair pay and opportunities for growth. Others may be having the flexibility to provide care for a family member, having competent colleagues, or feeling valued. Everyone is different, however, so you’ll need to ask.

Once you’re sure there are no obstacles getting in the way — or have taken all the steps you can to alleviate them — you’re ready to explore what will motivate each team member further. There are two different approaches you can use. The first is through tangible and concrete rewards, the second through intangible and invisible rewards.

  • Tangible or “extrinsic” rewards are your organization’s material incentives. They include pay and bonuses, vacation, overtime, working conditions, medical insurance, housing, transport, gifts, awards, retirement pay, and perks.
  • Intangible or “intrinsic” rewards are the non-financial incentives that come from the satisfaction and enjoyment of the work itself. They include aspects such as having interesting projects to work on, feeling part of the team, and receiving great feedback.

Tangible rewards are an important part of the deal; after all, very few of us would turn down a pay rise. Bonuses are another useful tool, especially when you need fast results in the short term or boost morale, for example. On the flip side, however, tangible rewards come with a cost. For the employee, that cost often means longer hours or having to shoulder greater responsibility. For managers, the cost is more direct: a hit on your budget.

Even if you do have some budget flexibility, tangible rewards are a long way from being the motivational silver bullet. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains why this is, including that people adapt quickly to any new rate, and being offered financial rewards can also feel like coercion. Worse still, they can encourage unethical behavior.

Intangible rewards, meanwhile, are possible to sustain. Because their value lies in the activity itself, they maintain our interest in the longer term. And when we enjoy what we’re doing, unsurprisingly we work harder at it.

The question is, what does this mean you need to do as the manager?

Six actions you can take to build intrinsic motivation

Each person is likely to be motivated in different ways. Here are six core actions that have been shown to have a powerful impact. These are not exhaustive and you’ll need to see what other drivers may be important, but they make a great starting place:

  • Increased recognition
  • Greater autonomy
  • Opportunities to use their “best self”
  • Increased social connection
  • Mastering a specialist skill
  • Having a greater sense of purpose

Increased recognition This comes first because it’s free, simple, and incredibly effective. In survey after survey, it’s also what employees ask for most. Whether it’s giving a genuine “thank you”, a letter from the unit head, or a small token of acknowledgment, acknowledging someone’s results or efforts can generate surprising levels of energy and personal pride.

Greater autonomy

We all like to have a say if what’s happening around us in our professional lives, just as in our personal lives. Whether our job is to write lesson plans, repair boilers, or clean hotel rooms, we’re likely to work harder and longer if we feel that our opinions count, and we have some say in decisions. The type of work your team member does will have a major influence on what’s possible here. Roles that involve a high level of risk will be more closely regulated, making it harder to create opportunities.

  • What they do
  • How they do it
  • When they do it
  • Who they do it with (although this may be less flexible).

Opportunities to use their “best self”

Research company Gallup found that people who have opportunities to play to their strengths regularly are more likely to feel confident and fulfilled, have better levels of energy, even smile or laugh more. This has a knock-on effect on results. When people use their strengths, they have a better impact on customers, they’re more likely to stay at their company, and they’re less likely to have accidents on the job. Even simply learning about their strengths helps people to be more productive because it leads them to use those capabilities more deliberately.

Increased social connection

Our work colleagues comprise a crucial part of our social circle, so much so that one of the engagement indicators often used in surveys is whether we have a best friend at work. The stronger our relationships, the more we share information, the better our work, and the more fun we have. Being deliberate about creating connection has become even mor vital in a hybrid working world.

Mastering a specialist skill

The challenge of becoming super-proficient in a capability can be intellectually stimulating as well as great for individual growth. The additional skills or knowledge this brings is also often useful for the whole team. Mastery might sound like an elusive concept, but anyone can develop specialist knowledge or capability given the right aim and resources. For example, a plumber might be keen to develop leading-edge skills in installing steam rooms, a fashion buyer may want to become a master-negotiator with suppliers, or a car salesperson might want to become the expert in prestige cars.

Having a greater sense of purpose

Last but not least, people are looking for a sense of meaning in what they do, both as an individual and in belonging to a cause greater than themselves. You can do this through two key actions: by translating the organization’s purpose into meaningful language, and by helping people to understand the importance of their contribution and how this fits into the bigger picture.

Understanding each person’s unique motivators

One way to help each person explore what will appeal most is to ask them to fill in the motivation wheel here, awarding a number from 1 to 10, with 1 for limited interest through to 10 as a top priority. This graphic is on the conversation guide (LINK). Even if none of these headings appeal to them, at least it may help to trigger other ideas.

A final thought

While you’re working hard to motivate your team, don’t forget to think about what might motivate you, too. It’s almost impossible to energize others if you aren’t feeling positive yourself. Think about what could make a real difference to your enthusiasm and talk to your own boss about how to make that happen. After all, stronger you, stronger team.


Motivation Conversation Guide for managers
Motivation Conversation Guide for team members
For more help see Now You’re Talking!
The manager’s complete handbook to leading great conversations at work – even the tough ones
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