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One of the questions we as a startup founders and CEOs have to ask is about motivation of our teams. In other words, how can you motivate your team to constantly perform on the highest level? In this post, we are going to discuss various ways to achieve exactly that. You will learn about both, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and what the possible ways to use them to motivate your team are. Only by understanding how motivation works you can transform your company into unstoppable juggernaut. Without further ado, let’s start.
Intrinsic Motivation Is Fundamental
The first and stronger way to motivate your team I want to discuss with you is through intrinsic motivation. This is motivation that comes from within you. It is your inner drive and fuel. Although there are many ways you can motivate others using intrinsic motivation, three of them are the most universal. These three are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Let’s take a look at each of them.
It All Starts with Autonomy
The first of the big three motivators we are going to talk about in this section is autonomy. This is basically the natural desire for our own self-direction. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink uses a simple example of how children play and explore all on their own. In other words, we are naturally wired for independence. That might also explain why it is so uncomfortable, at least for some of us, to listen and follow other people’s advices or instructions. I would even say that every mature individual with healthy self-esteem had to “struggle” with this.
How can you use this information in you company to motivate your team? It is very simple. Give your employees more freedom. Let them decide on the best way to get their work done. Unless they are totally new in the workspace, don’t try to be their shadow always looking over their shoulder. When you assign someone a task, let them set the deadline and give them any resources they think are necessary to complete the task. Then, let them work. Do your best and resist all temptations to interrupt them from their work. Wait until the task reach its deadline.
If your employee will deliver the results you wanted, continue applying this approach in the future as well. On the other hand, if he or she will not fulfill the promise you should dig deeper to find the cause(s). This doesn’t mean you should just “forget” about it. Not at all. In order to build great and stable company that will leave some legacy behind, you must be able to trust your employees without exception. I would suggest you think about it like having kids. Full disclosure: I don’t have kids, I have startup. More information about that soon. For now, you can check out MAELSTROM.
Anyway, if you are a parent, please correct me if I am wrong. Let’s say you gave a task to your kid (cleaning dishes or whatever, making the bed) and you’ve got his or her word to complete the task. What would you do if that task wouldn’t be completed on time? First, your trust would probably get damaged. Second, you would want to know the reasons leading to current situation – not completing the task. Do the same thing with your employee. Although he screw it up already, there might be some hidden reasons that could either explain it or at least make it more acceptable.
Having said that, no matter how serious the reason(s) was, facts are facts. You gave your employee your trust and he didn’t deliver. Does that mean you should never trust him again or even fire him? No. All it means is that you still should give him less autonomy in the future, but you should also allow him to re-build your trust again. In other words, be tougher and restrict the options, but don’t close the door completely. Upside of this downside is that this will motivate your team and the rest of your employees to never disappoint your trust.
They will understand that although they have autonomy in their work, it all comes with great responsibility. You have to show your team that autonomy is not something granted. It is something that could be lost easily and so they should value it appropriately. Last two things … First, always lead with action. Meaning, instead of talking about autonomy and how much freedom will you give someone, shut up and do it. Instead of talking about punishing bad results and rewarding good ones, shut up and do it.
Remember that action will always have greater weight than words. Second, if some of your employees repeatedly don’t deliver on time, consider firing him. You have to show your team that doing mistakes is fine, but repeating them will have consequences. Let me also answer one question I hear a lot. How much autonomy should I give to my team? My answer is more is better than less (sorry Dieter). Unless you don’t trust your employee (which you should), always give them more autonomy. Your goal is to show them that you trust them.
Remember there are two rules to keep your team motivated and make your company thriving. First, your team must trust you. They must be willing to follow you to the hell if necessary. Think about how Moses led the Israelites from Egypt. Second, you must be able to trust your team. Trust is two-way road. They trust you and you trust them. There is no other way around this.
The Path to Mastery
Okay, that was a bit longer part … The second piece of the intrinsic motivation puzzle to motivate your team is mastery. Believe it or not, we all have that inner urge to get better at something that matters to us and to pursue master of that topic. To give you some example, imagine something you love to do now. Whatever the subject of your choice is, I’m pretty sure that it was not always like that. I will bet that there was time where you hated it. Don’t feel bad, this struggle phase is necessary part of every skill acquisition journey. To make it more personal, let’s talk about sharpening my design skills for a moment.
When I started, I sucked … A lot. Although I was getting stronger on the theoretical part, the practical was still struggling. In other words, it was much easier to talk about design (or teach it), than to actually design something. Not that I would hate it. I loved it. However, every time I tried to design something, the real version never looked like that perfect idea I would imagine before that. It took me years of practice and a lot of moments of disappointment to sharpen my practical skills. I have to admit that, for a perfectionist like me, this made the whole process much harder.
Imagine that you would spend ten or twelve hours of your day creating something and at the end all you would think about it was: “Fuck!”. And, I’m not talking about “Fuck, that’s awesome!” Rather the opposite. Twelve hours of work and the first thing you want to do is to delete it. If you went through something similar, and it doesn’t have to be design related, you know what am I talking about. However, with time and after seeing the first improvements, you will gradually like that practice. This pleasure then helps us continue in the process.
This is also the reason that I don’t believe in that “follow your passion” thing. It simply doesn’t work that way. Have you ever seen a child grabbing a violin and saying: “Fuck I have a passion for this wooden thing!” Probably not. However, a child that like to play violin is a different story. There is not a passion yet, only some interest. It is only with time and practice that we develop a passion for some activity or subject, not the other way around.
Anyway, back to how to motivate your team … Although I am against specialization, I never tried to force this opinion on other people. At least not on a daily basis. What I want to say is that if some of your employees are showing interest in pursuing a specific skill, let them. Don’t try to build any artificial “walls” or force them to other areas because it would be beneficial for your startup. Allow your people to follow their interest. It will give them much bigger drive that will result in doing better work and getting more things done.
In order to let your people pursue mastery in their skills, you have to allow experimentation. Without exploring new methods and areas, reaching mastery is impossible. In other words, restricting experimentation will create artificial borders for what your team can learn. So, if you want to implement mastery into motivation “program” of your company. Show experimentation and risk-taking as positive things. Instead of prohibiting, encourage them. Make mastery, risk-taking and experimentation integral part of your company’s culture.
What is the Purpose
The third and last factor of intrinsic motivation is pursuing some higher purpose larger than us. It is this large purpose what gets you out of bed in the morning even if you don’t feel like it. It is also what keeps you working without groaning and grumbling at the toughest times. This is also the reason that so many companies are talking about having a mission nowadays. When you can align your company’s goal to some mission, you can create unstoppable force. Hen you think about it, mission is just a different word for a larger purpose.
Unfortunately, I can’t give you too many information on how to align your company to a higher purpose. In a fact, nobody can do it for you. It is something you have to discover by yourself. Only then, you will find purpose that is authentic and strong enough to motive your team and just everyone in touch with your company. The only thing I can tell you is that this purpose must be something your people deeply believe in. They have to breath and live for it. When you ask them why are they going to work, their answer should be this purpose, not money.
This purpose or mission must be an invisible thread connecting everything you and your company do. Everyone working for you must truly believe in it. Remember that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This doesn’t mean you should fire everyone not sharing this dedication. Just like in the autonomy part, you should do your best to understand why he doesn’t share company’s mission. Only then you will be able to work on it together and possibly fix it without taking the whole thing further. You will also find out if your purpose has some gaps.
When Intrinsic Motivation Isn’t Enough
Intrinsic motivation can motivate your team for a long time. However, what can you do when it is not enough? When this situation happen, you can go to another time-tested options that are offered by extrinsic motivation, such as money. There are various ways to use this option to motivate your team. First, you can raise their wages. Honestly, I wouldn’t use this unless you know for sure that your cash flow will increase in the future. Only then when you know you can afford such a change in the long-term it is foreseeable. Unfortunately, since business is hard to predict environment (not to mention startups) thinking that you can predict your cash flow is insane.
For this reason, I would start to consider raising wages only with a knife on my neck … Or gun aiming at my head. So, what’s another money related option? You can motivate your team by creating special bonuses for people with best results. This is much more affordable than raising the wages across the whole board. It will also awake that competitive spirit amongst your employees. If your team composes of A-Players, it will motivate your team like almost nothing else. Turning the regular work into competition is for high achievers what is red blanket for bulls. You might even have to calm them down little bit. Otherwise, they can take it too far.
What If Money Are Not the Answer
Next option is to create a special rewards for the best employees. These rewards don’t have to be monetary. It can be some coupons or material things. It can also be products or services your company is creating and selling. This approach can make the whole motivation thing a lot of easier and more affordable. It can also be a test for how much do your employees value your products. However, before you use this tip, make sure your company is creating products that can be used by both, men and women. It could be difficult to motivate your team, the male part, by offering some cosmetic for ladies. The same thing the other way around. These small details could even cause discouragement.
Another way to motivate your team without directly paying them some kinds of bonus is offering experiences. In a fact, this can be by my opinion the best motivator you can find. Things can get lost, break or just lose their value over time. Experiences, on the other hand, can sustain its value for the rest of person’s life. For example, what do you think will motivate your team members more? In the first case, you will reward the best employees with some kinds of material reward. It can be some decoration, smartphone accessory or whatever. It can be almost anything that has higher value than zero. Otherwise, it will end up in a trash can.
In the second case, you will use some kinds of experience as a reward. Although available experiences can vary, I will focus on more extreme and enjoyable one for this moment. Let’s say you will give one of your employee one lesson in skydiving as a gift for his work. Imagine face of the winner when you announce the price and just before he will jump from the plane. Which one of these rewards do you think will last longer? By the way, let’s suppose that the skydiving lesson will happen as planned and so without any problems. Meaning, your employee will survive it with all bones in one piece.
I think we can agree that extreme and enjoyable experience such as skydiving will be much more powerful reward. Also, I forgot to mention this earlier, but you should keep the reward unknown to gradually build tension amongst your employees. Just imagine how motivated for the future will the ones who didn’t win be when you finally announce the reward. They will do anything to win the next time. Let me give you just one more advice related to experience related rewards. Always have a backup plan. It might not end well if winner would have some health issue or, say fear of heights, and the reward would be bungee jumping.
So, from this point, it will be smart to always have some less intensive reward as a backup. You never know who can win and reward should not force the winner to leave your company. For example, you can prepare two or three options winner can choose from. Then, you can either save unused options for the next time or reward employees on second and third place. That can motivate your team furthermore.
Team Building and Motivation
The last thing related to motivation we can discuss are team building activities. As the name suggest, these activities are used to build and strengthen connections between your employees. Although this post is primarily focused more on what motivates individuals and motivates your team for higher performance as a side-effect, team building can be great way to build strong teams. As with motivation in general, team building activities can vary a lot. You can be familiar with more leisure ones or extreme. None of them are necessarily bad.
However, some team building activities will work better than others. As you might guess, the ones performing better will be those your employees are more interested in doing. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you which ones it will be. The only way to find out is to … Ask your team. Given that people will have different preferences and interests, you should aim for something in the middle. Focus on activity that will suit the majority of people in your team. However, never ever try to force chosen activity to people who don’t want to participate or are against it.
Also, don’t show these people in a bad light. Remember you want to strengthen bonds in your team, not alienate one employees against each other. The best is to make voting for team building activities both, democratic and anonymous. Next, make absolutely clear that participation is voluntary. State is as the first rule for great team building philosophy. So, let me say it again. Don’t force it. The second rule is to use team building to motivate your team is to avoid grouping people in your team and then letting these groups play against each other.
Although it may not seem like a bad idea, it can result in strengthening bonds only between people in the same group. And, it can cause a small tension between those groups. Remember, that it doesn’t matter if these people are working in marketing and these in development. You are still one company, one organism and one family. So, what can you do instead? One thing you can do is to challenge your competition. Think about the company you compete with and invite them to participate on one of these team building activities.
Doing it will have great (positive) effect on your team’s motivation. First, you will get to know your competition better and can even learn something from them. Second, you will naturally avoid alienating your employees against each other if they are in the same team. Third, it will teach your employees to work as a team much better than regular meetings in the office would ever could. The last thought? Focus on team building, not team grouping.
Closing Thoughts on How to Motivate Your Team
That’s all I can tell you about how to motivate your team, at least for now. Maybe, we will return to this subject in the future, but for now this will be enough. I think that by now, you have a lot of things to think about that you can experiment with. The last thought I want to leave you is to never leave motivation of your team to chance. Building a company with motivated and thriving employees behind it is a result of hard work and effort. And, it is your job as a founder or CEO to make this happen, not your employees.
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