Here’s What So Many Leaders Get Wrong About Motivating Employees

July 3, 2016, 4:00 PM UTC
Older Caucasian business people arguing in office meeting
Older Caucasian business people arguing in office meeting
JGI/Tom Grill Getty Images/Blend Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How do you stay motivated?” is written by Rachel Mendelowitz, managing partner at McChrystal Group.

The concept of motivation often triggers a flood of mental images: a runner diligently pushing herself through increasingly difficult training runs in preparation to complete a marathon, a calendar of “X’s” marking time since a habit was last practiced, or an inspirational reward posted as a reminder.

Discussions around motivating individuals are usually based on these types of concrete, targeted examples. The goal or intended outcome is very tangible as long as you simply apply yourself through a series of steps to stay on track.

But most people’s workplaces are not like that. At work, a swirl of personalities and constantly shifting outcomes make your goals more complicated, rendering the path to success less clear. How can you even be sure that you’re striving toward the right goal, or that it won’t change before the year’s end?

The tips and tricks we’re used to reading about are largely driven by extrinsic motivation, a desire to earn an award or avoid punishment. Run a marathon to lose weight; study for a good grade; put in extra hours at work for that end-of-year bonus, or so the thinking goes.

This approach can be quite effective in situations that are predictable. Extrinsic motivation works best when we break down larger goals (like running a marathon) into smaller, more achievable ones (run a 5K, and then a 10K). In these straightforward, linear scenarios, it can be very motivating to check things off along the way.

See also: Staying Motivated Won’t Help Your Career

But in a more complex environment like today’s workplace, extrinsic motivation is less effective. There, we often have broad, more uncertain goals, and the steps to achieving them are unclear or even unknowable until we begin our journey. We want to be the market leader in a certain space or chart a path in a new industry, but we aren’t really sure how to go about it. You may have an initial guess, but you will likely have to adjust your assumptions and original plan, adapting as you go.

In the face of unpredictability in today’s dynamic business environment, how can we motivate our workforce?

Increasingly, organizations are finding that the answer lies in fostering intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is driven by something entirely different. We run that marathon because we’re hooked on the escape that running long distances provides, or we work long hours because we wholeheartedly believe in the mission of our company.

Intrinsic motivation provides what I call a renewable resource when employees need to navigate ever-changing circumstances while sustaining their drive.While extrinsic motivation relies on carrots or sticks, which need to be engineered and can eventually be exhausted, intrinsic motivation is a well that you can tap into. Even if the target is moving or shifting, it drives you forward like an engine. You’re not being pushed or pulled: It comes from within. This proves to be more effective in the long term.

Here are a few tips for cultivating intrinsic motivation:

Tell stories
As a leader, your role is to help develop common purpose in your organization, reiterating the mission and vision that you’re trying to achieve as a collective. Even more powerful are “impact stories,” or anecdotes that illustrate how individual employees live out the company’s mission. One of my clients often shares a tale about how when one area of their phone service went out for a few minutes, a hospital was affected, risking the life of a teenage cardiac patient in distress. Narratives like this drive home what your organization does and why the work of each individual is so vital.

Make everyone feel like they contribute
Link your organization’s common purpose to everyone at every level. There’s a famous story about President Kennedy visiting NASA. During his tour, he walks over to a janitor mopping the floors and asks him what he’s doing. The janitor responds, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” When individuals feel that they are contributing to a higher-level mission, they produce greater results. Your job as a leader is to a shine a light on this. Thank every portion of your organization, especially the less glamorous parts.


Empower employees
If your workers are micromanaged, you are killing the intrinsic motivation that you have spent time fostering. Punishments or restricted decision space encroach on your employees’ abilities to prove themselves, leaving them unmotivated and disengaged. Extend trust as far as you responsibly can with each individual. Empowered workers feel a greater sense of ownership, adding another layer to whatever motivations they already have internally.

Intrinsic motivation results in greater creativity, increased productivity, and higher performance. View your extrinsic motivators—like a new benefits package or shoring up the bonus pool—as attraction and retention tools. If you want to motivate your workforce over time, spend energy and resources cultivating intrinsic motivation. It may take more tending on the part of the leader, but it pays much more in dividends.