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The power of team motivation

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Watch any sports movie – or really any movie about any kind of team up against the odds – and you’ll likely see it: the big speech. That moment when the coach or leader gathers everyone around and gives an impassioned, heartfelt motivational talk that inspires them to get the job done, no matter the odds. It’s a trope so pervasive that when many people think about motivation, they assume it requires something similar.

And to some degree, they’re right. But motivating a team also involves a whole lot more. Rather than one speech, it’s important to think of motivation as an ongoing process featuring both big, dramatic moments, and a lot of smaller, more subtle ones. Understanding all these different ways motivation can work is essential for keeping your team productive, happy, and engaged.

Let’s dig into what makes team motivation so powerful, then explore some ways you can start inspiring your team. 

Understanding team motivation

Team motivation refers to the practice of encouraging, inspiring, or even incentivizing a group to work toward a shared goal, such as the completion of a project. There are countless strategies for motivating a team, such as offering rewards or giving positive feedback, but these strategies can generally be placed into one of two categories:

  • Extrinsic motivation: This is when external factors are used to motivate your team. That may include raises or bonuses, extra vacation time, staff parties, or even negative motivators like the threat of losing a client.
  • Intrinsic motivation: This refers to internal motivators, such as curiosity, ambition, or a strong personal desire to get a job done or help the team complete a task. Intrinsic motivation often correlates with discretionary effort – something every employer hopes to generate from its staff.

As a leader, it’s your job to understand what kind of motivation will best appeal to your team as a whole, and to individual employees. For the most part, you’ll want to limit your use of negative motivators, and try to instead focus on what you can do to encourage and inspire your team. 

Each team member will be different in the ways they respond. Certain behavioral types might require different motivational tactics. Some may want a project that challenges them in a new or interesting way. Try to give these intrinsically motivated employees tasks and responsibilities that will appeal to them. Others may respond more to external incentives. Experiment with what works for each, in order to see what works. Usually, you’ll end up relying on a mix of different intrinsic and extrinsic motivational techniques, depending on the situation.

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Benefits of team motivation

Motivating your team is always a good thing. But it can also be a lot of work. Is this work always worth it, especially if many factors of motivation (such as an employee’s personal drive or interest in their job) are largely outside of your control? 

Not only do the significant benefits of motivating employees make it worth it, but the benefits of merely trying to motivate make it something you should always pursue. Here’s why:

  • Better productivity and team performance: It should come as no surprise that, when teams are motivated to do work, they’ll do more work. But the quality of that work will also be better because they’ll actually care about it. They’ll want to get it done – and done right.
  • Increased flexibility in the face of change: Intrinsic to motivation is the support that comes with it. Motivated teams know that they have the backing of their managers and fellow employees. That makes them more capable of adapting and pushing through change that they might otherwise find challenging.
  • Higher morale and less turnover: When a team is motivated, or even when they see that there are efforts being made to motivate them, they’ll be happier. They’ll know that they’re in a caring and supportive workplace, which will boost morale and make it less likely for people to leave.
  • More engaged employees: Motivation is also highly associated with interest. Whether they’re getting pushed from the outside or inspired from within, employees will have a desire to get work done. This will make them pay more attention to details, increase their creativity, boost teamwork, and make them more engaged.
  • A safer and less stressful workplace: Another benefit of keeping employees motivated and happy is that there’ll be a lot less stress going around. Even when deadlines are looming or the work is tough, people will be more likely to help each other out. And that kind of support will help increase the psychological safety of everyone.

Boosting team motivation at work

Put your big speech aside for now. When it comes to keeping teams motivated over the long-term, you should instead be focusing on a number of smaller, but more structural strategies. Although the following motivational methods may not win any awards in the moment, they will help create a workplace where motivation is the norm.

Communicate clearly.

Ever had a manager who didn’t know how to set clear goals? Or a client who only told you what they wanted after you delivered a project? Then you know how difficult it is to stay engaged and motivated when basic communication is a challenge.

What this really comes down to is respect. The ability to communicate goals, instructions, and expectations clearly and effectively is one of the minimum requirements of good management. Knowing how to do this well shows that you care about using your team’s time wisely. You want them to understand what needs to be done and what defines success so they can get the job done.

But what constitutes good communication? You can start out with an emphasis on openness and transparency. Hold regular meetings to check in on the status of projects, tell the team about upcoming challenges, and ask how everyone is getting along. Try to make a concerted effort to ensure everyone can come to you with issues or frustrations, as well as new ideas. And remember to always listen before you speak.

Define the goals.

It’s hard to stay motivated if you lack a sense of direction and purpose. This is what makes it so important to set clear and realistic expectations for your team. You should make sure they not only understand the larger goals they need to accomplish, but also how they can each best contribute toward achieving them.

Start out by focusing on the high-level team goals you’d like to set. Try to make this an inclusive process in order to ensure these goals involve every team member. After aligning them on your organization’s larger mission, ask each person how they think the team could increase company performance. Gather everyone’s responses, narrow them down to the most relevant, and begin writing them down.

As you do this, try to align your goals to the SMART system to ensure each objective and expectation is clearly defined and measurable, and fits the criteria for success. Remember to make sure everyone also understands their specific responsibilities as they work toward these goals. You can do this by continually checking in, providing support, and making adjustments as needed.

Build connections.

Motivating your team doesn’t have to be your responsibility alone. Instead, a great strategy for keeping everyone inspired is to lean into the team structure and encourage a greater sense of camaraderie. And the best way to do that is to create opportunities for building connections.

There are many good ways to do this. For example, you could start a mentoring program that pairs more experienced employees with lesser experienced ones. This can be great for knowledge sharing, as well as giving each team member a go-to person for support. Or you could organize informal coffee breaks or happy hours so that your team can get to know each other outside of work. There’s a good chance the social connections they create during these team-building activities will help out their performance later on.

Don’t forget to build connections yourself too. This is especially important for managers and team leaders. Make an effort to meet with each team member one on one to introduce yourself and get to know them. By setting this kind of example, you’ll help encourage a more open and supportive workplace all around.

why change initiatives fail

Provide opportunities for development.

At a minimum, your team should have ready access to all the tools and resources they need to get their job done. But to really motivate them to do their best work, you should also give them access to opportunities for learning and developing in their careers.

The aforementioned mentorship program would be a great place to start with this. But so would even smaller gestures, such as offering to train employees on new tools or software, or giving them a day each week or month for them to dedicate to continuous learning. Or you could go big and offer to sponsor employee trips to off-site trainings, skills workshops, and industry events. This could help them not only improve their on-the-job abilities, but also forge valuable connections that may help both them and your organization.

Harness the power of positive feedback.

This one is simple: when you see someone doing something well or deserving of recognition, tell them. Although there’s a lot to be said for offering constructive criticism and helping employees identify their weaknesses, it can be just as powerful (if not even more) when you showcase their strengths.

Passing compliments and words of praise are nice, but in order to make giving positive feedback a habit try dedicating a section of your weekly meetings or stand-ups to sharing something nice. Highlight how an employee supported one of their team members, or call out how someone else went above and beyond. Even better, invite other team members to share how someone else positively contributed to their efforts. If you want, you could even formalize these efforts into an “employee of the month” type program. 

The result should give you employees who are incentivized and motivated to do better work – all this from a few compliments.

Celebrate successes.

Recognizing individuals is well and good, but don’t forget to also call out the collective efforts of your entire team. Whenever you reach a milestone or achieve a goal – or even when you just want to reward their hard work – look for a way to celebrate.

After all, a team isn’t a team if they’re not working collectively and collaborating. So in order to encourage them to continue doing this, provide them with a concrete sense of having accomplished something significant. You could throw a team party or take them all out to lunch. If possible, financial rewards or vacation time would also be a great way to celebrate. Whatever it is, a little simple recognition for working together well can help motivate them to continue working toward their next goal.

David is a freelance writer and PI contributor. When he’s not writing, he’s probably thinking about food. He believes pretzels are superior to potato chips and you can’t convince him otherwise.

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