Methods for Motivation
Recently I’ve noticed an increasing number of founders share that they have concerns about the performance of their team.
Some of this is attributable to the shifting economic climate. A year ago when cash and customers were easy to come by, urgency wasn’t a focus. Good enough performance was good enough.
This gets amplified by the prevalence of remote work where observing contribution has become more obscure. Comings and goings at the office have been replaced by the small green “active” circle on Slack. And when the circle isn’t green and the team isn’t blowing past milestones, concern surfaces.
When I work with founders on this exact situation, we dig beneath the productivity concern. And what’s revealed is a belief in the talent and potential of their team. This alone is an a-ha moment: They believe in their team.
They know the potential is there. Now we just need to learn how to tap that potential.
Today I’m going to show you four methods of motivation that work.
Let’s start with the shitty one first…
Motivation by Fear
Demand and threat are sadly the norm for driving motivation. This has been modeled to us our entire lives:
You better do well in school or you won’t get into a good college. You better do your chores or else mom/dad will be disappointed in you. You better work more hours or else…
Fear works. It can be a damn good motivator for a while. But fear isn’t a useful long-term motivator.
Fear is shitty because it plays on people’s shame. And shame is a tricky emotion for humans to experience. Shame is felt belief that I am not ok as I am. No one wants to feel shame.
So if you tell someone they aren’t doing enough, you’ll trigger one of two responses: “Fuck you” or “Fuck me”:
- “Fuck you” leads straight to disengagement. You’ve demanded something that crossed a boundary, and now you’ve made things worse. They’re leaning toward the door now.
- “Fuck me” is a deeper shame response. This sort of person wants to get rid of feeling shame as fast as possible. So they’ll get busy, work harder, and do just enough to convince themselves that they’re good enough.
Fear is straightforward and effective but quite violent. A sort of command and control approach to extracting effort.
Fear destroys the inner spark of motivation.
Use fear and you’ll lose some people and from the others get a temporary just-do-enough productivity boost.
Fear isn’t it.
So what is?
Here are three better ways…
1. Meaningful Contribution
Most performance issues stem from people not seeing how their effort contributes to the success of the company nor their team. If I’m not sure what I do matters, why do much at all?
I’ve shared before about I-WE-IT as the three dimensions of leadership. Those who don’t see how their work contributed have lost track of both the WE (interpersonal with my team) and IT (my contribution’s impact on the business results) dimensions. All that’s left then is the I (personal) dimension. Its no surprise then that contribution-disconnected individuals primarily see only their wants and needs. They’ll do enough work to fly under the radar, collecting a paycheck, hoping their equity becomes a payday, but never fully engaging. Because again, why engage if my engagement doesn’t clearly matter?
Without pride in what you’re building together, there won’t be much building or togetherness.
Fixing this starts with alignment at the executive team. What needs to be done? Why does it matter? Who will lead it forward? Once you’re clear, every team lead aligns their team on the same questions.
2. A Friend in Need
When a friend asks for help, my motivation jumps.
There’s an inner motivation to help people who we have a connection of trust with.
The opportunity here is to be vulnerable (which builds trust) in asking for what you need.
For venture-backed startups this means being real with your team on the current state of the business. In particular, your runway, key milestones, and how you’re seeing the current economic and investment climate.
Too many founders shield their team from these realities. Doing so, misses out on leveraging the trust that you have to get support in moving forward. Ask for what you need and you might get it. Don’t ask and you’ll get more of the same.
3. My Word
The final source of motivation is the most powerful. When I give my word that I will do something to others, I do it. I have an accountability group, where every week I make clear commitments to accomplish specific things. I give my word and I do them.
It’s inner clarity + positive peer pressure. A potent combination.
Teams that struggle with motivation are usually missing clear commitments. Most commonly, the expectations on roles and responsibilities and/or the current goals were never actually agreed upon. Find what isn’t clear and agree together, asking the team to give their word.
Commit (or recommit) to the mission that you’re on, the milestones that are most essential, and their role in realizing what’s possible.
Combining the Three in a Clearer Contract
Fred Kofman is one of my favorite thinkers on modern work. His blend of capitalism and humanity inspires new ways of aligning humans and impact through work.
In his latest book, The Meaning Revolution, he combines contribution, asking for what you need, and commitment into a fresh contract for working together:
A great leader makes the following offer: “In addition to compensation and benefits, I will provide you with an opportunity to infuse your life with meaning. I will provide you with a platform on which you can build a personal and social sense of worth. This platform will enable you to prosper not only materially, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually: emotionally, because we will relate to you as one of us; mentally, because we will respect your intelligence; spiritually, because we will join in a project that transcends our small egos and connects us to a larger purpose.“
In exchange, such a leader proposes, “I want your unbridled enthusiasm. I ask that you give your utmost energy in service of our great project. I ask that you exemplify our values and culture and hold others accountable for doing the same, and that you relate to your teammates with kindness, compassion, and solidarity. I want you to subordinate your personal agenda and collaborate with your teammates, doing whatever it takes to help the team to win. I ask that you put your heart, mind, and soul into fulfilling the noble vision that animates all of us, aligning your efforts with the rest of the organization.”
What a lovely and powerful offer to make. If I ever start another company, some version of this will be the starting point to every person joining the mission.
So what’s your current contract with your team?
It’s likely not anywhere near as clear as the above. In fact, it’s probably not explicit at all. And implied contracts aren't very useful.
Consider it time for an upgrade, or at a minimum, tap some of the methods above to light that inner spark of motivation.
If you want to get more from your team without using fear-based tactics then instead:
- Align contribution to the bigger, more meaningful picture.
- Leverage trust to ask for what you need.
- Ask people and teams to commit to what they’ll do.
You can also tap all three by combining them and agreeing on a new, powerful commitment to working together.