3 Ways to Motivate Your Team

If you have ever been on a team or in a leadership position, you know that getting people to care about their work or the group’s direction isn’t always easy or simple.

This article is about how to motivate other people, create team consensus, and set up an environment where your team willingly and enthusiastically pursues a unified direction.

One of the keys to engaging you team is making your people feel in control, heard, and influential. But how do you help people to feel that way?

As I discussed in my previous post, intrinsic motivation can be derived from our beliefs about whether or not we can control our growth. Feeling that we can change our outputs is the prerequisite driving force to taking action that will spur our growth.

Charles Duhigg’s book “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business” expands on this idea of control in a way that is useful to us, as team leaders. He discusses motivation in chapter one by looking at the research of Dr. Richard Strub and Dr, Michel Habib. These two neurologists independently conducted research on individuals who, after accidents, lost all apparent drive to do anything, without losing intellect, without experiencing depression, and without any other physical signs of something wrong. The patients were capable of answering complex questions, doing household chores, or anything they were asked specifically to do, but when left alone they would sit endlessly doing nothing. In one case, a patient could not be left alone in the sun because she would sit indefinitely even after severe sun burns.

The only physical commonality seen during fMRI scans across the patients was a darkened spot in the brain in the area called the striatum, seen in pink below. The darkened spot was indicative of burst blood vessels signaling some sort of trauma to the region.

In a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, Mauricio Delgado used fMRI scans coupled with a simple game to observe where and when the feelings of excitement and anticipation arose within the brain. While laying in the fMRI machine, subjects looked at a screen that would display a number between 1 and 9. The computer would prompt the subjects to guess if the coming number was above or below 5. When the participants made a guess their striatum would light up with activity.

In another variation of the game, the computer would alternate who got to guess between the patient and the computer. When the participant was the one making the guess, their brains lit up with excitement in the striatum. During the rounds that the participant did not get to choose, little to no activity was seen in their brains. They disengaged when it wasn’t their turn.

Charles Duhigg explains, “The striatum serves as a kind of central dispatch for the brain, relaying commands from areas like the prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made, to an older part of our neurology, the basal ganglia, where movement and emotions emerge. Neurologists believe the striatum helps translate decisions into action and plays an important role in regulating our moods.”

This is information can guide our actions as leaders in several ways. People need to feel a sense of control over their work, a sense of influence over their team, and be able to make choices at work. If you’ve ever had a child, you know that kids prefer to feed themselves from as early as they can handle a spoon (even if they aren’t particularly good at it). Everyone on a team cannot be the team lead, but this doesn’t change our peoples’ human nature and drive to feel compelled to make choices. People inherently want to make choices and contribute to the direction of their team.

1. Ask your people for their thoughts and input on major decisions.

You can do this in many different ways. Brainstorm for a solution during a gathering of your team members. There are good and bad ways to do this, but I won’t get into this here. Another way to enable incorporate choice in major decisions is to talk to each of the members of your team individually. You will get more unadulterated opinions this way, but it can be very time consuming depending on the size of your team. I’ve had 50+ individual conversations on one topic. It took a long time, but it built buy-in and personal loyalty. I usually ask questions like, “What have you heard about [some problem or area of improvement]? What do you think is causing the problem? What do you think we can do to reduce the problem or make improve how we do _____?”

At the end of the day, you as the team leader need to make the call, but allowing your team to discuss options and possible courses of action will make them feel heard, generate creative solutions, build up a sense of mutual trust between you and your team. They will feel that they have control/influence over the direction of your team and that feeling will drive them take action.

2. Ask for volunteers when difficult or new challenges need to be started.

Ask for volunteers when you do not have organizational structure built in to solve the new problem. If a new challenge falls with in the tasking structure of your organization, there is no question about who will take on the job. If you supervise logistical support, embarkation, internal training and etc… and you need someone to lead efforts to gather dimensional data and weights for all of your shipping containers, clearly your embarking section should handle it because it falls within their job description.

So ask for volunteers when you don’t have a section or individual that usually handles the problem. When you ask for a volunteer, the person volunteering has to make a choice. They have to think about the new work load, the time commitment, and the benefits, challenges, and downsides of accepting the offer. They have to choose to take the reins. That choice endows them with a greater sense of responsibility for their work. Your team will get better results when your people are willing to own their work and when they take initiative. You can’t be everywhere and make every decision.

Avoid asking for volunteers during large gatherings. You risk getting someone volunteer for the task that is more interested in the associated attention and who doesn’t have the prerequisite skills. First think about who is most capable of taking on the challenge. Explain what you need to happen and the associate commitments, potential benefits, etc and then ask if they are willing to take on the challenge. The person you ask will feel honored that you trust them with the new undertaking. If time allows, give them time to think the decision over.

3. Allow your people to decide how something is done.

We don’t always get to choose what we are doing. Most of the time, you have a specific job that you and your team need to do. But within the bounds of our jobs there is a degree of freedom that we can exercise. How something gets done. There is a multitude of ways to get from A to B. Allow your people to decide how they get from A to B. Giving people choices as to how their job gets done gives them control over their work and enhances their internal drive to act. When we fully control how our people work, it zaps any sense of internal motivation to work and makes people disengage much like when the computer was the one making the decision as mentioned in the University of Pittsburgh experiment above.

Don’t micromanage your people. Allow them to make decisions about how their work gets done. I am not saying you turn a blind eye to some questionable things your people may or may not do. Set boundaries on what you will allow. Some of the boundaries I set include: is it morally wrong? Legally wrong? Unsafe? Wasteful (time, money, resources)? Will it degrade the welfare of my team? If you see something questionable being done, ask why they are doing it that way. Ask if they have considered doing it an alternative way. There may be a good reason why something is being done a certain way.

A good plan with support is often better than a perfect plan with no support.

To summarize, choice is key in motivating our people. You can create an environment where you team feels a greater sense of control and responsibility when you allow your people to make choices. Three ways to incorporate choice into your work place are: asking for input, asking for volunteers, and allowing your people to choose how they do their job. I hope this post helps your team’s performance and welfare.

4 thoughts on “3 Ways to Motivate Your Team

  1. First of all some props are in order for your use of the Lord of the Rings gif.

    I have a slight extension to point 1 if I may: In addition to asking for subordinates feedback, I truly believe you need to find some way to demonstrate you have given it some serious consideration. I am not proposing that you always implement what they are suggesting, because not all ideas are good ideas (there is that honesty from point 2); simply that you find a way to show that you are listening not just hearing what they say.


    1. Sean, thank you reading my article. You’re right; there needs to be a way for me to demonstrate that I’m giving their input serious consideration. Sometimes I do that by letting my people execute the idea they suggest even if I think the suggestion it isn’t the most efficient way (as long as the suggestion meets the end state). How they get from A to B doesn’t always matter. Another way I try to show I am seriously considering the option is to ask my people to describe what it would look like in action and often times this process helps them refine their idea. I ask “what ifs” as we go. Thank you for sharing, Sean!


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