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Cultivate and Sustain Motivation

Career Catalyst

Motivation can be nebulous, appearing and then simply disappearing. In a team environment, it is vital that you ensure it stays put to drive results and reach goals.

Something almost magical happens when people click, ideas flow, and results surge — a perfect harmony. To the contrary, lack of team synergy, low group morale, and no tangible outcomes breed a palpable sense of demoralization within a team, and often signal that motivation has been lost.

As a leader, you might be inclined to check the wishy-washy, philosophical jargon at the door. Motivation may not feel relevant or practical. But, motivation is critical to achieving a harmonious team balance that produces results. Project teams, especially in the world of engineering, often comprise a diverse cross-section of stakeholders. It can be difficult enough to reconcile incompatible cultures and overcome language barriers, but managing conflicting personalities and communication styles presents an entirely different set of challenges. The team will look to you for clarity and direction. This article discusses why motivation matters and offers guidance on how to achieve it with your team.

What is motivation?

More than 70% of employees become disengaged every day — even to the point of contemplating quitting (1). Considering the resources and energy required to hire and train just one individual, let alone the amount of attention required to offset just one disengaged team member, it is easy to see the importance of employee engagement. Furthermore, highly engaged employees are 38% more likely to have above-average productivity than their peers (1). If results are your goal, deeply engaged and motivated employees are your capital for achieving that goal.

Employees must work to achieve results, but how do you get employees to do that? An old adage in our sales department is “no pain, no change” — implying that without sufficient reason to alter the process, a customer will not spend money to make a change. This maxim can be generalized to encompass all human behavior: “no motivation, no action.”


Figure 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is depicted as a pyramid. Each source of motivation must be satisfied before the tier above it can be tackled. Image adapted from (2).

We are continually evaluating our behaviors against needs, wants, desires, obligations, and neural forces (some of which are beyond our immediate control). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (2) has informed the basis of motivational psychology for nearly 60 years and attempts to define a path that people take to fulfillment (Figure 1).

Maslow was on the right track with his contention that people are inherently predisposed to provide for their most basic needs (e.g., physiological needs, security, etc.). However, he did not account for a fundamental oddity of human nature — we are irrational and illogical creatures. If Maslow were correct, people would not run into burning buildings, jump out of airplanes, or leave high-paying jobs. This critical fault undermines the model and challenges academics and leaders to find new ways to address motivation.

The hierarchy misses the mark on two significant points:

  • the journey to self-actualization is not necessarily linear
  • yes, people can be selfish, self-serving creatures, but we will undergo some degree of suffering to accomplish a goal for which we are dedicated.

These flaws are telling. They make it clear that to encourage the right behaviors, we need to first understand the values of each individual and then establish the right environment to use those values as a motivational force for success. They also suggest that the mark of successful leaders may reside in their ability to leverage both internal and external factors that shape employee behavior.

Motivation 1.0

It is clear that we have been relying on a flawed approach to motivation, but how has that manifested in the workplace? A carrot-and-stick method has been used as a motivational tool for generations and, unfortunately, still permeates business culture.

This traditional view of motivation — let’s call it Motivation 1.0 — is predicated on the notion that the primary function of resource managers is to ensure that every part of the organization is performing at or above its required potential to ensure collective success, and that managers have an array of bureaucratic tools (e.g., quotas, bonuses, demerits, performance reviews) at their disposal to ensure compliance. In practice, this means that results are achieved or not achieved, and personnel are either rewarded or punished.

This model has worked. Tycoons made fortunes running their empires in precisely this manner. But, success comes at a price, and Motivation 1.0 also had some unintended consequences. It can prove difficult to quantify, in hindsight, the opportunity losses in terms of employee burnout, distraction, and inefficiency that result from this management style, but the dollars are real. Given an opportunity to work for an employer offering more accommodating conditions or a nominal pay increase, personnel will jump ship. Environments managed in this way are also characterized by a void of empowered accountability and creative and critical thought, which are vital in a competitive world driven by innovation.

The advent of distributed control,...

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