Creating a Motivational Environment

See also: Motivation Skills

What Every Leader Needs To Know About People’s Motivation

Most business leaders will have heard of Abraham Maslow and his beautiful pyramid. 

Maslow describes the motivational factors for humans and, notwithstanding that his work comes in for a good deal of criticism from some quarters, there is a strong degree of attractive logic to his theory.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really help leaders to motivate people at work on a day to day basis.


Fact: Every person in your organisation is motivated.

The big question is whether they are motivated to do the things that you, as their leader, want them to do.

If they are not doing what you want them to do, they don’t simply stop doing altogether, they are simply motivated to be doing something else.

Here are three simple habits that you, as a leader, can exhibit every day to create a culture that motivates people to follow you willingly.

Show your Appreciation

It motivates people to have their efforts appreciated.  That doesn’t just mean ‘paid for’; it means noted and commented upon.  It doesn’t have to be a big razzmatazz or a special award or valuable prize, just a simple, low key ‘thank you’, delivered in person.

Research by Dan Ariely in association with MIT suggests that people whose work is not appreciated need to be paid double to be as productive as people whose work is appreciated.  This isn’t soft fluffiness, it is hard economics.

Conversely, it switches people off when they see their effort completely unappreciated, hidden or destroyed.  ‘Unsung heroes’ of today tend to become the defectors or the saboteurs of tomorrow. So sing!

Of course, if you are the leader of a large organisation, you seldom actually see many of the people who work for you. Showing your appreciation of their efforts, in person, regularly, is not easy; it takes a lot of time and effort. 

There are three habits that can help you if you are in this position:

  • Show your appreciation of the efforts of the workforce to your immediate reports.  Ask them to pass on your recognition and gratitude.
  • Make a conscious effort to refer to the appreciation you have for your workforce whenever you are dealing with outsiders.  Whether it is the media, shareholders or customers, make sure to “big up” your staff.
  • Practice ‘Management By Wandering About Taking An Interest’~ a great way to appreciate someone’s contribution is just to take an interest in it, ask questions rather than offering judgements.

Help your People to Develop ‘Mastery’

At the beginning of the modern era of mass manufacture the watchword was ‘efficiency’.  The whole job was broken down into small, repetitive chunks and each person solely worked on their chunk.  Employees might spend their entire 48 hour week putting the front, left-hand side wheel on cars, but never actually see a complete finished car.  That was the norm when the company was manufacturing cars, and the staff had little education or access to information. 

Now your staff members are more educated and have more information at their fingertips than ever before.  They also have higher long-term aspirations. They likely to be providing some more knowledge-based service to customers; the basic manufacturing is more likely completed by machines.

Developing ‘mastery’ of their chosen area of career means that they want to keep abreast of the pace of change, they want to improve their knowledge and skill and they want to broaden their experience.  This doesn’t mean that as a leader you have to send them all away on long expensive training courses. 

Here are three habits that will help you to create an environment where people can gain mastery:

  • Encourage exploration amongst your departments or teams.  Job-swaps or work-shadowing help people understand the bigger picture and provide new eyes to look at old problems and practices.  Rather than employing consultants to look at improving performance and processes, encourage your people to do it themselves.  When they make recommendations, appreciate them, and where possible implement them.  Allow the people to judge what has worked and what hasn’t.
  • Encourage ‘informal learning’:
    “The odds are that development will be about 70% from on-the-job experiences, working on tasks and problems; about 20% from feedback and working around good and bad examples of the need, and 10% from courses and reading.”
    ‘The Career Architect Development Planner’ Lombardo and Eichinger
    So encourage people to take on responsibilities above their grade level, even if only for short periods. 
  • Encourage the setting of challenges for individuals and teams (not higher targets, but challenges to improve things, solve problems and learn and demonstrate new skills).
  • Encourage teams and individuals to seek performance feedback, to analyse and to learn from both good and bad experience. (This is an area that can be challenging; analysis of bad experiences can often appear to be or descend into “blame sessions”, analysis of good experiences can be seen as a waste of time... ”it went well, why the post mortem?”). 
  • Encourage your people to read, to benchmark and to use the web and social media to keep abreast of new developments and competitor activity.
  • Keep the more formal learning going; invest money and intelligent effort in providing in-company training and development. Sponsor people to gain relevant qualifications.

Share the Big Picture

It is often said that what separates a ‘manager’ from a ‘worker’ is the ability ‘to see the bigger picture’. 

That may well be one of the important characteristics, but it doesn’t mean that the people lower down the hierarchy aren’t motivated by being shown the bigger picture.

There is that old story where a visitor to NASA in the 1960s saw a janitor sweeping the floor and asked him what he was doing; “Helping to put a man on the moon” was the reply. (It probably isn’t a true story; why on earth would anyone look at a man who was sweeping a floor, and ask him what he was doing?)

As a parable, the story hints at the day-to-day motivational effect of knowing the overall purpose of the organisation and how your little bit contributes to that grand design. Implicit in it is also the fact that the janitor had a pretty good idea how the organisation as a whole was doing in relation to actually getting Neil Armstrong to take that ‘one small step, one giant leap’.

Most CEOs will share these elements with their colleagues on the Senior Management Team (SMT).

To create an environment that motivates everyone you need to make sure that these messages are spread quickly and frequently to the whole workforce - including the janitor!

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