How do leaders motivate their people

The Coaching Leader is a crucial and under-appreciated leadership role. Take motivating team members. Today’s coaching leaders have mostly quit using carrots and sticks. They’ve already noticed that they don’t always work. Nearly fifty years of research says the same.

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21st century leaders look to three intrinsic sources of motivation to build up and challenge team members. The first is autonomy.

But to balance building up team members with challenging them takes individual attention and regular tuning. Coaching is the best way to tap inner motivation and sustain it over time.

Rewards are not the best motivator

Remember your pal Abraham Maslow from Psychology 101. He proposed that we are driven by a hierarchy of needs. After our most basic needs are met, we aspire to address higher needs. Self actualizion is the highest.

Here’s how this is relevant in rewarding people at work. If they feel that they’re not being rewarded fairly, their attention will be stuck on the unfairness. The need is for basic equity. This issue calls into question whether needs for safety and security and self esteem are being met and respected.

Basic need? Autonomy

So what is a source of greater satisfaction than basic needs? Research shows that we consistently and naturally want to carry out work with as much autonomy as possible. It seems to cut across all our other needs.

A mounting pile of studies confirms that we’re inherently self-directed to seek out a meaningful challenge. It doesn’t feel like work. We derive a lot of pleasure from it. It’s basic to our day-to-day experience. Think of a time when you didn’t feel confident or secure at work. Now think about the moment when you felt you took charge of your work. If you’re like a lot of people, you also felt more secure and confident. This drive is a force for good. And it is surprisingly easy to thwart it in complex organizations.

Leaders usually have good intentions when they want to cut the risk of potential project failures. Some leaders, exercising a natural desire to help, support, and even coach the team can have a controlling effect on the essential elements of autonomy: what people do, how they do it, when they do it, and the people they do it with.

Preventing failure can crowd out great autonomy

Autonomy is the antidote. Imagine the mental terrain produced by a goals. Somewhere in the future a well-defined accomplishment stands waiting. The more completely it’s quantified, the more the route from here to there looks like a straight line. These kind of goals can help achieve efficient results when the work is linear and decisions are binary. But less and less of it is.

Now imagine laying out a different kind of playing field. Where the goal was, there’s an objective. The difference is that it’s defined by outcomes or qualities rather than time and distance. The boundaries of the playing field are fairly broad. It’s shaped like the widest funnel you can imagine – wide at one end and only a bit narrower at the end where the objective stands.

Many ways to the finish line could be twisty. Backtracking might be good for the final result. Cross the finish line on the right or the left. It doesn’t matter. “Success” is much more variable than finding the square peg that fits in a predetermined square hole. Your team might surprise you. Notice your reaction as you read that. Excited? Uncomfortable?

People are energized by the chance to exercise their innate desire to stretch, grow, and deliver using all of their best qualities. Offer them autonomy and coach them to keep that desire alive. More on that to come.

  •  How have you tried carrots and sticks? How are they working?
  •  How have you protected team members’ autonomy?
  •  What effect has autonomy had on their work, or mindest at work?

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