Can Leaders REALLY Motivate Their Employees?


The role of the leader is to communicate culture.

Some believe the role of a leader is to motivate others. In reality, the role of a leader is to unite a team, communicate culture, and model core values so that the team fosters harmonious and inclusive work environments where teams are inspired to produce exceptional results. The complexities of leadership mean individuals are complex, ever-changing, so what suits one employee may not suit another.

In reality, no human will do anything that they don’t ultimately want to do.

Motivation is a psychological force, defined as ‘the reason, or reasons, why people act or behave in certain ways’. Yes, you might not ‘want’ to work late. In reality, you may want to be at home with your family. But you need a job. You want your boss to appreciate you, and be proud and grateful to you. Hence you stay late. You get the work done to achieve this. Because wants and motivation are complex, and delayed gratification, short and long-term gains, all lead to these complexities.

Humans often don’t consciously know what they want.

At times, humans don’t consciously know what we want. Other times we do but need to adapt for longer-term benefits. This is when we do things or act in a certain way, which we may not want to do initially for longer-term rewards. Think about the gym. If you go to the gym, especially at the beginning it can be difficult, hard work, even painful. Many people don’t enjoy going to the gym. But they want, even need, to be fit and healthy. So they go to the gym to meet their higher-order wants – the results.

Generally, no human will ever do anything they don’t want to.

Humans can be forced to do things, physically and mentally. But generally, humans do not tend to do things they do not want to do. Even under duress, humans make decisions about how best to negotiate a situation. The challenge is, when businesses expect leaders to be directly responsible for motivation this focus can be demotivating to some, even detrimental to others. A recent leader used to celebrate their employee’s success, shouting about their achievements and in turn, this demotivated some employees who held back their potential to avoid the attention.

Potential can be defined as the innate capacity within an individual to develop or improve. But this is aligned with what motivates us. Humans need to be motivated. You can’t force someone to change, develop or improve without them wanting to do it themselves.

But what can leaders do to motivate their employees?

The first is to understand that humans cannot directly motivate each other. They need to create an environment in which an individual motivates themselves. Then in time, form habits which promote a culture of success. To do this leaders need to:

Listen To Understand Others

Understanding what matters to the individuals in your team, their goals, interests and values allows you to tailor your encouragement. Opening doors for individuals to progress into areas aligned with their interests and what they find meaningful.

Understand Own Strengths

Knowing your strengths, skills, expertise and where you gain energy is paramount in empowering others. Being able to utilise your strengths, develop yourself and understand your motivations ensures authentic leadership that naturally inspires and motivates others.

Lead Psychological Safety

Ensuring everyone feels included, and able to voice their ideas and thoughts in a safe environment is crucial to ensure people remain motivated. So often employees become demotivated when they don’t feel listened to. When employees don’t feel as though people listen to their ideas, they stop making suggestions, reducing or redirecting their actions based on their motivations. No human is motivated by being made to feel incompetent, unappreciated, unheard or obsolete.

T.H.I.N.K. About Communication

Leaders need to provide constructive feedback. Share the facts. Share areas for improvement. Be open to feedback themselves. Ensuring all communication is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind is crucial for any employee – especially leaders. Read more here.

Manage Mindsets

At times everyone can become ‘fixed’ in their thoughts, focus and mindset. How a person thinks, their attitudes and opinions can be focused, inflexible and fixed – especially with individuals who are unable or unwilling to change them. A great leader can support individuals to see challenges as opportunities for growth.

Supportive Direction

Everyone needs direction. Clear areas to focus on, whilst being empowered to own their progress is vital. Motivation can fluctuate so a great leader can dial up and dial down direction and support as required to encourage individuals’ motivation.

Set Teams Up For Success

Providing resources and opportunities and setting teams up for success is key to ensuring individuals are motivated. So often, managers can hinder their teams by not setting them up for success. Sometimes thinking that by setting out challenges they are helping their team ‘demonstrate’ their competence. In reality, a manager needs to set up their teams for success.

Set An Example

Humans emulate others. Despite what we say to others, people copy the behaviours of others. Leaders need to demonstrate the behaviours, attitudes and focus that they wish to inspire in others. Being authentic, and ensuring their actions fuel motivation in others.

Motivation fluctuates. At times of high stress, human motivation levels can be reduced. But equally, when there is no stress or pressure this can also cause motivation to reduce. For many, there are optimum levels of stressors to ensure people remain motivated but do not become burnt out. This also relates to a person’s strengths. Individuals are more likely to become burnt out when not utilising their strengths.

Remember, while you can provide support and encouragement, motivation ultimately comes from within the individual. A leader’s role is to inspire and facilitate their intrinsic motivation.

Think Performance. Think Excellence. Think Impact.

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Think Performance. Think Excellence. Think Impact. 

Check our Insights page for more valuable information.

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