How do you motivate people and teams?

I give talks regularly, about marketing, business growth, culture and more. The topic of motivation is always requested and when we address it, people lean in and eyes get wider. People want to know, but they also want to understand how to implement strategies to motivate ourselves and our teams. In this article, we attempt to break the science of motivation into practical and actionable steps which can be adopted in business and sport.

As you build a team of great people, you must assist them, help them learn, give them the opportunity to grow and become autonomous. 

Many studies have been conducted on the topic of motivation, one in particular by Dan Ariely, one of the greatest economists of our time. Ariely and three of his colleagues tasked undergrads at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with one exercise that required some minor cognitive skill, such as adding up numbers, and another task that required only mechanical skills, namely tapping a key as fast as possible. The students were offered a large or small financial reward for best performance.

The results were surprising: If the task involved only mechanical skills, the rewards worked as expected: higher rewards resulted in better performance. But as soon as the task called for even basic level of cognitive skills, performance was negatively impacted by the high rewards. 

Financial rewards, it turns out, only work for very straightforward tasks that are simple to do and require little or no creative or lateral thinking. Whenever creative thinking or cognitive abilities are required, financial rewards and incentives just narrow our concentration and kill our out-of-the-box thinking. You can call it pressure, call it whatever you like, but the end result is that performance worsens.

It’s safe to conclude that a financial incentive isn’t always the best motivator, it isn’t always the best tool to get the job done or to get the most out of people. Especially in an agency environment, where creativity is one of the top skills and attributes that people require. A careful distinction though: people need to be paid fairly in the first place. Whether you use industry benchmarks or another way to determine what’s ‘fair’, you need to ensure that the money discussion is met face first. People need to be paid fairly and have opportunities to earn more. This includes perks, bonuses, etc. If the company does well, then everyone does well. That’s a given. What I’m saying here is that additional pay doesn’t seem to work as motivator with complex tasks. 

So how can you motivate people? How can you motivate your teams and yourself? 

In his TEDGlobal 2009 talk “The puzzle of motivation”, Dan Pink confirms Ariely’s view that financial incentives are not only ineffective at improving performance, but produce the opposite result and hurt performance. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink argues that the key factors that truly motivate people are: 

  • Purpose
  • Autonomy
  • Mastery

Purpose

We find that what motivates people at our organisation, as well as in our clients’ teams, is a shared higher purpose. A larger view, a shared vision of what they’re trying to achieve. If people understand, are aware, feel part of, and are excited by the mission, then they are more likely to go the extra mile to deliver their best performance. They’re more likely to stay up at night and scratch their heads when things aren’t going well, and celebrate your victories with as much passion and excitement as if they were their own – which indeed they should be.

This is very much connected to having a big WHY that goes beyond materialistic goals. These do not talk to your teams, they only talk to your bank account. Important missions and goals, like “Creating the absolute best environment for people to work in, grow personally and professionally and be as happy as they can be outside their homes” speaks to people’s hearts. “It’s our goal to be Earth’s most customer-centric company where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy” (Amazon) or “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” speak to people’s hearts, or at least seem to have people’s interests at heart. 

When you grow, it becomes increasingly harder to communicate the vision and to make sure that the goals, objectives, and direction are shared with everybody in the company. So, my biggest suggestion to you is to build and establish effective communication habits that allow you to communicate effectively across the organisation. If you come up with a mission you intend to last the lifetime of the company, or simply be your objective for the year, then commit to it. Print it out and stick it on walls, include it in all documentation and written communication vehicles as appropriate, and start and finish all staff meetings, speeches and announcements with that sentence. That is how you keep it alive and fresh in people’s minds. 

One way in which I do this at Genie is to do weekly video updates. At the time of writing, I spend 60, 70, sometimes 80 percent of my time outside of the office. I discovered during a 360 review that one of the things the people, our staff members, wanted from me was more clarity as to what I was up to and what projects we had in the pipeline – stuff that wasn’t yet confirmed, but that we were working on. That was a clear request from them to understand more; they wanted not only a shared vision but also to be aware of the stage we were at weekly. I thought this was brilliant, a great piece of feedback. 

So I started to record 10 or 20-minute videos most weeks to do exactly that. I share with people what my week was like, where I went, why, and what I was going to do. I would touch on the projects that were not official but that we were working on, and I would also cover slightly higher level subjects to do with our mission statement, our challenges, our desires for the agency and anything else that could help them develop passion and excitement for the vision. And the results were remarkable. People felt very sympathetic when I was out on business and struggling with something, people reached out to offer their help. It had an incredible impact, both in terms of the spirit of the organisation and in practical terms. People generally knew what we were talking about at any given time, they were on the ball, and it was much easier to get help and to get everybody to buy into what we were doing.

Autonomy

Another thing that motivates people is autonomy, having decision-making power over what they’re going to do. So, if you’re into any kind of micromanagement, I would strongly recommend that you walk away from it, because it doesn’t work. Give people autonomy, let them turn up and decide what they’re going to work on. 

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a remarkable person called Daniel Hulme, who runs Satalia and also runs an MBA program in London. At Satalia, Daniel was able to establish a culture where people turn up for work and work on what they really want to. They have no fixed projects, and they can literally work on whatever project they want to work on. When I asked Daniel how he makes sure that even the most boring projects get attention, his answer was remarkable. He said: “Well, everybody knows that if we don’t work on the smaller or on the less exciting projects, then eventually we’ll struggle financially. And if we struggle financially, there won’t be a job, there won’t be a company, so they do it.”

At Satalia, Daniel built a completely flat structure where the traditional pyramid-shaped structure has been flattened to the ground. They have no managers; people manage themselves. People also make their salary recommendations public. Each person tells the entire organisation what they believe they should be paid and everyone else then votes as to whether they should ask for more, less or stay where they are. This is probably for another book, but the point here is that Daniel took the concept of autonomy to the extreme, and it worked. 

What’s remarkable about Daniel and Satalia is not only the company’s non-hierarchical structure, which is amazing in itself, but Daniel’s courage to actually set up the organisation that way, where there’s basically no need to manage or control people and their workloads, and where people can go to work and choose what to do. He built a decentralized company, a group of people working towards the same high-level goal, which is to enable people all over the world to do things that they really want to do whilst improving businesses through AI and ML solutions. I find that very remarkable. 

What Daniel did is unique, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that you should do that. I think Daniel and his team are making it work, among other reasons, because that’s their mission: to create a world where people are free to do whatever they want to. So they dedicate all their efforts to achieving that, starting in their own team. Our mission isn’t the same, and I feel that creating such a unique structure requires full commitment. But that doesn’t mean we should stick to traditional structures and approaches either. The point here is to walk away from micromanagement and give people as much freedom as you can to do their jobs within the structure and scope of your organisation. 

We have adopted a solution somewhere in the middle, and we learn from people like Daniel and his team so we can slowly move towards a more autonomous environment. We give people the overall objective and let them run. Try it yourself. If you do it for the first time, apply some caution and some oversight, and provide people with support, but really resist micromanagement and walk away from the obsolete ‘if you want something done well do it yourself’ bullshit. Walk away from management altogether and work on coaching instead. Ask people how they’re feeling, where they’re struggling and help them find the right solutions. Help them train their creative problem-solving minds and resist the temptation to ‘fix it’ for them.

Mastery

Once people have a big sense of purpose, a shared collective mission that helps them keep their eyes on the prize, and the autonomy to get on with the task at hand, then you’re doing absolutely amazingly. To continue their journey, then, people need mastery: the ability to get the job done. This is also known as the concept of flow, first introduced by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, in 1975. In simple terms, flow is being ‘in the zone’ – the mental state you reach when you are so immersed in a task that time goes by super fast, your focus is super-sharp and you are simply flowing through the task, with no resistance, no boredom, no force required, it’s just happening. In flow, you are so absorbed that time and space fade away.

In order to be in flow, you have to be engaged in a task that has a level of difficulty that’s optimal for your level of skill. If the task is too easy, you get bored and can’t get into flow. If the task is too hard, you feel it’s out of your league and you can’t do it, so you can’t get into flow. 

Flow

[Image source: Wikipedia]

In order to help people get into flow, you can give them the autonomy, but they need the skills. This is one of the many good reasons why we must invest in people development, professional and personal, continuously. At Genie, we have a team dedicated to learning and development. At the time of writing, they are at the end of a large project building an e-learning platform for our staff. It’s costing us thousands. We incentivise people to go on courses; these cost money and time. We allow people to spend 20 percent of their time on R&D. These are probably the best investments we are making.

It comes back to that question: “Yes Luca, but what if I spend all that time and money training people and then they leave?” And the answer is always: “What if you don’t and they stay?” 

Make sure you allow people to work towards mastering their skills so that they feel equipped to work on higher-level problems, gain the confidence to choose how to go about solving them and get into flow. That’s how you work toward mastery, which, coupled with autonomy and a big sense of purpose – your organisation’s big WHYs – leads to massive motivation that lasts. 

Actions

  • Write down the attributes and behaviours you want your staff members to share.
  • Design an interview format that allows you to measure how candidates score on your attribute and behaviour requirements.
  • Start thinking about, and jot down on paper, what you can do to promote purpose, autonomy, and mastery. These are likely to be provided by:
    • Purpose: Your why from the WHY chapter; your OKRs.
    • Autonomy: Finding the right people and interviewing them to make sure they are truly the right people; trusting them with small things first and increasing that trust as they get more comfortable; ensuring they are free to fail and make mistakes without feeling scared; letting go of the control you might feel you need. 
    • Mastery: Investing in their training.

How do you motivate people and teams?

by luca time to read: 5 min
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