As a leader, it’s your job to help employees figure out what motivates them and link it to their goals and values. But the fact is, you can’t motivate them — at least, not in the way you think — so stop trying.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, to discuss motivation. Her work has helped me question the long-held assumption that you can motivate people by imposing your values on them. Rather, you have to try to understand them as human beings.
Chris Cancialosi: Why does trying to motivate employees not work in an entrepreneurial environment?
Susan Fowler: Motivating others doesn’t work in any environment. People are already motivated — just not in the ways you want them to be. The key is to help people understand why they’re motivated in one way or another and help them shift those reasons if need be.
Many entrepreneurs work under one of two fatal assumptions that undermine someone’s optimal motivation:
- People should share the same values that motivate me.
- No one can be as optimally motivated as me because I started the company.
As an entrepreneur, it’s important to understand that all employees can experience high levels of motivation, but it will be based on their own values and reasons. Even if employees are motivated by the same values as you, they need to feel like they’re acting from their own values, not ones imposed on them.
Cancialosi: Is there a “best” method to giving startup employees a better sense of purpose?
Fowler: Your employees are your greatest resource, so ask them, “Why are you joining this venture?” “Why do you think it’ll make a difference?” and “Why is it important to be a part of it?”
If the only reason they come up with is “for the money” or “for the upside of making a killing by being on the ground floor of a successful venture,” that’s a red flag. Those employees won’t be able to sustain the positive energy, vitality, or sense of well-being required to make it through the inevitable challenges a startup will face. This is doubly true for the entrepreneur.
Cancialosi: If your employees are already feeling alienated by your attempts to motivate them, is there a way to turn this around?
Fowler: Certainly. In my book, I touch on this topic in the story about salon owner Billy Yamaguchi. He hoped his own values and purpose would rub off on people, but when this didn’t happen, it led to frustration for everyone involved.
Now, he has motivational outlook conversations with people to help them identify their own values and sense of purpose in working for his salons. In fact, I just talked to him last week, and he’s still focusing on helping others develop their values and find their own meaning and purpose in their work.
Cancialosi: In your book, you say, “When employees thrive, leaders don’t need drive.” Can you expand on this?
Fowler: Many managers believe the only way to get results is to drive for them. But evidence points to the contrary. How do you drive for results? Create pressure. But pressure can diminish results and limit both creativity and innovation. People simply cannot sustain high-level productivity under pressure.
Your other option is to hold employees accountable, which makes a statement about trust. People want to be accountable, but there’s a big difference between being accountable and being held accountable. When your needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence are satisfied, you accept responsibility and take initiative. You go the extra mile for the greatest good, and you continually learn and grow.
If leaders feel like they need to drive for results, I would ask them to question why. Is it because they’re asking people to achieve unfair goals? Is it because they haven’t shared a vision that compels people to work toward its fulfillment? Is it because what’s being asked and employees’ values aren’t aligned?
The quote from my book, “When employees thrive, leaders don’t need drive,” might also be reversed: “When leaders drive, people will fail to thrive.”
Cancialosi: How can leaders in the startup world recognize when a more hands-on approach is necessary? Is there a way to gauge an employee’s internal drive?
Fowler: People can be driven for suboptimal reasons. Either this drive can’t be sustained or it will negatively affect their well-being over time. It’s best not to make assumptions. Rather, leaders need to have conversations with people asking questions, such as:
- When you step back and reflect, what do you think or feel about your goals or tasks?
- How do these tasks or goals align with your personal values?
- How can these tasks or goals connect to your purpose?
- What makes this project meaningful for you? What makes it not meaningful?
The leader’s involvement also depends on the person’s level of competence. If the person is new to the task and has never demonstrated competence in the past, you need to be more hands-on. But there’s no reason to be hands-on when that person has demonstrated high competence, is confident in his or her capability, and is optimally motivated.
If leaders learn to have motivational outlook conversations and provide the appropriate leadership style to give people the direction they need (when they need it), they’ll create an optimally motivated workforce that’s passionate about work. Everyday motivation is the key to long-term engagement, where everyone benefits.
Your workplace should be a safe place for people to be authentic. As a leader, it’s up to you to create an environment where your employees have a sense of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. When they feel like their individual values align with their work, they will be acting with a noble purpose that they personally relate to. This is the key to more healthy and sustainable motivation in your organization.
This article originally appeared on Forbes