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In coaching individuals, one of the questions I often choose to begin a dialogue on leadership is, “What is your primary responsibility as a leader of this organization?”  The responses vary greatly and, although some would claim that their response to this question is THE answer, I’ve found a number of replies that I might agree with.

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One common response is, “I am responsible for motivating my team.”  While motivation and leadership are often mentioned in the same breath (and rightly so), I’m Puppet Businessman not so sure I agree with this response.  I tend to agree with Jim Collins that, as he states in his classic Good to Great, great companies don’t spend time figuring out how to motivate their employees.  He states, “If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated.  The real question then becomes: How do you manage in such a way as not to de-motivate people?

The thought of a boss-turned-motivator brings to mind images of Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell (David Brent and Michael Scott in The Office) dressed in their finest workout gear, flailing about the conference room while the boom box accompanies with a rendition of Queen’s “We are the Champions.”  Entertaining, somewhat sad, but not motivating.

We have a number of organizations that approach us with the ultimate goal of increasing employee engagement.  This is certainly a worthwhile goal.  By measuring employee engagement, we can then address those areas that will create the circumstances and processes by which engagement can occur or increase.  But there is also a flaw in the way many companies approach the idea of engagement.

Organizations generally start off with the question: “How do we motivate them to… (insert your latest change initiative here)?  This implies that motivation is something done TO your employees—something inflicted upon them.  The second flaw in this thinking is that those in the executive suite have the power to pull the levers to increase engagement.  The annual employee survey then becomes an executive report card, and the top 10 people in the organization make a hurried push to “drive engagement.”

This also assumes that employees are extrinsically motivated.  In other words, they are “motivated” through external reward (or punishment).  As an employee, these rewards may help me in my desire and efforts in moving toward that reward, but I then establish a pattern of moving to the next reward.  This is not motivation.  This is, as psychologists point out, operant conditioning (behavior modification in which the likelihood of a specific behavior is increased or decreased through positive or negative reinforcement).  My “motivation” then becomes hopping from reward to reward, rather than in intrinsic motivation to perform and help the organization achieve.  This is not to say rewards don’t work— of course they do.  However, they do not ultimately result in motivation, and are generally short-lived.

While the overall organization does have an impact on motivation, the reality is that the top of the organization chart plays only a minor role.  Employees are not likely to find satisfaction in a job where they are underpaid, where they worry about whether they will be employed tomorrow, where they don’t have the equipment they need to succeed, or don’t have “the basics.”  These areas are within the purview of the senior team.  However, the reality is that motivation is local in that it occurs at the individual level, and is largely impacted by that individual’s direct manager and working environment.

Does this mean that motivation is not a component of a manager’s duty?  No.  Going back to Collins’ theory, if we have the right people in the organization, they will be self-motivated.  The role of a manager becomes:

  1. Get the right people on the bus (team) who will then be self-motivating
  2. Create the environment in which these people can choose to be motivated (notice that we are not motivating them)
  3. Manage in such a way as to not de-motivate

Going back to our original question, one of the primary responsibilities of a leader does relate to motivation.  A direct supervisor, regardless of his/her level within an organization, has tremendous impact on motivation.  However, he or she can only get the right players and create the right environment, then not blow it.


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Related Blog Post: Employee Satisfaction vs. Motivation and Employee Engagement

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Tracy Maylett
Tracy Maylett

Tracy is the Chief Executive Officer and President of DecisionWise, and is responsible for guiding the overall strategy of DecisionWise, as well as leading large-scale change efforts for clients throughout the globe. View Bio

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27 comments — View
  • I couldn’t agree more. It seems that we spend so much time and energy within and organization on “How do we motivate our employees,” or “What do we need to do to engage this team” that we forget a good deal of the responsibility rests on the employee. I have worked with many teams in which some of the employees almost refuse to be motivated, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the manager. However, as pointed out, the manager’s role is to create the environment. Now this is not to say that the manager doesn’t have responsibility; he or she absolutely has the responsibility to create this atmosphere. However, at a certain point, one must ask whether the right passengers are on the bus!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by EmployWise, DecisionWise, Inc.. DecisionWise, Inc. said: Motivate me. I dare you. | DecisionWise Leadership Intelligence Blog via @AddThis […]

  • Excellent article:

    Many managers leaders need to grasp this concept. I have often seen top performers who start slipping when new management comes on board; The new manager is quick to blame the subordinate instead of reflecting and trying to find the source of disconnect.

    Is it the harsh style of the new managers communication and criticism? Is it that they quickly changed the way things are done without providing an explanation?

    again thanks great enlightening article!

  • Everyone should motivate everyone else. It’s not just up to “leaders.” There are various methods:

  • A great article focusing on the right way for managers to motivate. During my next management course I will try out a segment on ‘how not to de-motivate your employees’ I will let you know who it works out.

    Mike Teape
    Teape Training LLC

  • Wise words indeed. I wonder though what advice you would give when you haven’t got the right people on the bus and the tickets last a lifetime, they may not want or be able to get off. I’m looking to capture the DNA of those great managers who can make all the difference in how they can create high performing teams – particularly where good or not so good managers that have gone before have not been able to.

  • For several decades we have heard that the responsibility for motivation rests squarely on the shoulders of the manager. However, we fail to account for the employee’s role in this. Motivation is a choice and it’s one we cannot make for the employee.

    On the other hand, we also cannot regress to the point where we were a century ago– the notion that a manager’s role is to extract performance and the employee’s role is to comply.

  • It is really little wonder why so many so called motivation programs fail within a short period of time. They are focused on the flaws of management, leaving management to correct the issues. When in fact much of the burden for motivation falls on the employee. Organisations that fail to recognize this will fail in their motivation efforts.

    Thank you for some real insight. Very well done.

  • I certainly agree about getting the right people on the bus; but other two Essential Components seem a little passive and indefinite. It’s important to recognize that, even with highly engaged employees, motivation can ebb and flow from day to day; so there is always an opportunity to add value through motivation.

    Most organizations (like to) feel they have created an environment in which employees can be engaged; but unless this is confirmed by periodic employee engagement surveys or other objective means, this may not be the case. And it’s difficult to establish and implement actionable management objectives in the form ‘Don’t do anything to de-motivate employees’.

    But you’re completely right about the need for the motivation to be intrinsic – you can’t make people motivated or engaged.

  • Thank you for your very insightful comments! This is an extremely well-written article.

  • Anyone interested in further exploring this topic may wish to read Daniel H. Pink’s book “Drive, the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us” or just watch his TED talk, Interesting new research and approach to the question of what drives people to do their best.

  • I tend on agree. Much of the issue is on the employee to be engage. Many bosses think it is their problem but it, of certain, is the responsibility of both parties.

  • This really hits home. So often we put the responsibility on the employer to motivate others when in reality motivation is a choice. Well said.

  • I have seen this in action in a workplace environment. The company that I worked for did a great job of getting the right people on the bus, but once they were on the bus were even more effective at demotivating them and make sure they were discontent most of the time. i worked with a lot of highly skilled people who were under-utilized and then frequently criticized because they were not given the right tools and were not put in the right environment. Managers would try to use extrinsic rewards to motivate and it really just wasn’t effective most of the time.

  • Wow! That was very insightful! I’m glad that you’re my professor :)

  • Great Article! Some thoughts – “Self-motivated” I feel is a general term that, when dissected, includes conditional components. I agree that some people are in general “self-motivated” in apparently every aspect of their life, but maybe this is because they recognize what motivates them and they pursue only those things. For others, it may be the role of the manager to help them discover what motivates them (choosing the right place within your organization for the people you’ve already chosen or assigning them to a project that gives them purpose and helps them access this “self-motivation”) or choose the right people who will be motivated within the environment that already exists.

  • This article rings true to me. As I read it I thought of the many experiences I’ve had or seen in the Army in trying to motivate people. Leaders will do all sorts of things to motivate their soldiers, and while they may get their soldiers to work on a project efficiently and promptly, with some soldiers it is very short-lived, sometimes only minutes. They are at training because they have to be, but they have no desire to be there. So they do as little as possible until they go home. Yet there are many soldiers who I have seen who are quite self-motivated. These are the ones that are always looking at how to better develop themselves and other soldiers and looking for things that need to be worked on regardless if it’s within the scope of their normal duties.

  • I have seen as a leader helps those around him find their motivation, attitudes and behavior can change instantly! Their would be no need for “operant conditioning”, it would be the individuals desire to change for the better. Great Article!

  • A critical element of not de-motivating employees is demonstrating confidence in the employees’ abilities as well as offering guidance and assistance as needed.

    Coming from the perspective of an employee, rather than a management perspective, the level of autonomy and trust that is shown by managers has a direct correlation with motivation to do what they ask and to do it in the best way possible. When I am told exactly how, when and where to accomplish some task, I often feel belittled like they can’t trust me to get it done. However, when I am given a specific end goal and given direction without excessive, unsolicited, or detailed instructions, assuming that assistance is also available as needed, I am motivated to produce my own work and to contribute something that I did.

    Regardless of job title, producing high quality work that one can be proud of is critical for any employee to continue to be motivated and engaged.

  • I like what this article is teaching, but it brings up a question to me? Is there any way that we can increase intrinsic motivation in current employees? For example, sometimes I get inspired through the example of other people or by healthy competition. These things don’t specifically reward me so I don’t know if they would be extrinsic at all. In this sense, I think to some degree managers can motivate people even if the primary burden is on the employee.

  • I certainly agree with the teachings contained here. I have had varying jobs that have attempted to motivate me extrinsically so I know firsthand how horrible of a motivation method that is! On the other hand, as I have had leaders who have taken interest and trust in me as an individual and have consistently displayed their own personal drive toward the goal of the whole I have followed said leader and have grown because of it.

  • I really appreciate the paradigm shift suggested by changing leaders’ role to “don’t de-motivate them.” It suggests that leaders would not only act differently towards subordinates but also think differently about them. It forces leaders to trust in the subordinates in greater measure. Just a quick thought (more a question of semantics) about the responsibility of leaders is that many leaders of organizations seemingly have little direct impact on who initially gets on the bus. As a result, it’s easier to view #1 as something beyond their control/influence. As somewhat of a merger of #1 and #2, would something to the effect of “ensure the right people are in the right seats” provide for a more proactive, influential role in coaching/leadership?

  • I really enjoyed this article, especially the discussion about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As someone who is currently in a talent acquisition role, looking for people who are intrinsically motivated has been a challenge that I have enjoyed tackling. If we can find people who are driven and who can find meaning in their work, it will enable them to thrive and succeed- and let our organization get the “right people” on the bus.

  • When it comes to accessing intrinsic motivation, I feel that a transformational style of leadership would be most effective. While other approaches might seek to motivate people extrinsically, I see transformational leadership as helping the employee become a better person because of their experience in an organization. They change from a transactional perspective (expecting a reward) to exceeding expectations. Transformational leadership also emphasizes the charisma that a leader exhibits–an important trait in NOT being de-motivational.

  • Recently I was reading over an interesting book that my friend referred to me called “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. In it he discusses how the most influential people are the ones who can focus on the interests, needs & desires of others before their own. He believes by focusing on others’ intrinsic motivators, you can lead them to accomplish what you want by allowing them to accomplish what they want. Essentially, you are trying to show them that what they want is actually what you want. Confusing? I think so, but it is an interesting concept nonetheless! Haha!

  • I’ve always thought of leadership as motivating others but this article really helps me to understand that it’s not. Helping people to become the best ‘them’ that they can is a true concept of leadership. I love how this article teaches that this is done by creating environments where the person can CHOOSE to be motivated. Great insight.

  • I love the idea that leaders shouldn’t inspire motivation! I taught piano for four years all throughout high school, and as I reflect on my experiences as a teacher, I realize I spent a large percentage of the time trying to understand how to motivate the children to practice. I created external rewards in hopes of inspiring them to practice throughout the week. I wish I had spent more time playing songs for them, showing them some of the great musicians, and nurturing the intrinsic motivation inside of them.

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