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So, How do you motivate people?


The following article is a guest feature from Tony Latimer

When the market gets tough, when layoffs abound, when reorganization is a regular event, when business is hard to come by…

You need a sharp team to stay committed to your organisation. A team that can think “out of the box” and be creative in finding ways to get business, a team that delivers top level service to customers. Most important, a team that remains motivated.

So, how do you motivate people?

This article has it’s origins in a talk I gave at the Mergers & Acquisitions Conference in Singapore earlier this year. The brief was to address the issues arising from the combining of cultures after a merger or reorganization and the problem of retaining and motivating the staff.

I am often asked to do “Motivational” sessions or talks at company conferences. Every time I have to explain that I do not believe there is any such thing and explain what can be done; and how.

Let’s start by looking at “Motivational” speaking. There are many people styled as Motivational Speakers around the world. I have been on the receiving end of many such talks in my years of corporate life. The problem I have with description “Motivational Speaker” is that it would appear to say that this individual can motivate the audience. I believe, and many experts in the field have said, that motivation comes from within.

RULE 1: You cannot motivate Me. Only I can Motivate Me.
I have found, however, that such talks can be “Inspirational”. You could certainly make a case that being inspired by someone telling the story of how they overcame some great difficulty in their life and made some considerable achievement may inspire members of the audience to face their own difficulties and challenges with renewed vigour. But unfortunately the talk will not tell them HOW.

Why? Because the speaker is talking about themselves, not about you. I have also noticed how the Inspirational feeling tends to last for just a little longer than the talk. After that the pressures of life and your own problems come crowding back in.

So, what are people motivated by? Solutions to their own specific problems which help them achieve what they want to achieve.

I have read many articles and opinions on schemes for motivating people and retaining employees. The tendency is to assume that any one solution will work for a number of people. This approach misses the key point. To work a solution must be aimed at an acknowledged need/problem where the person concerned actually wants the problem solved.

RULE 2: A Solution can only deliver Benefit when matched to an acknowledged Need.
One of the tasks, and challenges, as a manager of people is to get them to be fully capable of doing the best for your organisation and to want to do the best for your organisation; then stand back and let them get on with it.

For this to happen they must be both appropriately Skilled and Motivated. Think of that strange game which is played on an ice version of bowling lanes – Curling. One player shoves the puck down the lane. The rest of the team (the management?) influence it’s speed by brushing the ice in front of it to either speed it up, or slow it down. But never interfere by touching it. Your role is to smooth the path in front of your people and direct the way things unfold.

You need to understand and resolve two things:

  • Aspirations and,
  • Inhibitors

If you understand their Aspirations, you stand a chance of structuring a future with them that takes them where they want to go and which will be of value to you. You will be able to work with them to identify any skill areas for improvement or acquisition to get there.

If by unfortunate chance their aspirations and the potential offered by your organisation do not match (and you have creatively explored whether adapting to take advantage of their aspirations could be a new opportunity for the organisation) then their future will probably lie elsewhere.

Problem? No, better to know now and manage the situation to mutual benefit than have an unfulfilled employee who will under-perform (or worse be a negative influence). As experience has shown, a facilitated move outside an organisation does not preclude a return when you can match their aspirations in the future. And you benefit from a more experienced individual who has gained skills that you now need, is known to you and knows your organisation. A much more productive hire.

Inhibitors are either fears or problems. Fears or concerns may be in regard to the organizational future, the individual’s place in that future, their ability to perform. Just about everything I can think of including in this category can be solved by information. If you don’t ask, you don’t know. If you don’t know, you can’t solve. In today’s world of uncertainty and change there is no mileage in keeping employees in the dark. Share information, get people to embrace change and take ownership of moving forward.

Problems come in two flavours. Environmental problems and task problems. Environmental problems are the things around the organisation and it’s systems, methods etc. that make getting the job done well and delivery of best service difficult. These things you can fix once you know they exist.

Task problems are those that relate to why the individual is not doing the best possible job. A skill is weak or missing. Again, once identified and agreed, you can fix it. Of course there are both individual skills and team skills. Developing team skill needs to be the subject of another article.

RULE 3: Understand Aspirations and Inhibitors, then take action.
But for now, think of the individual who now has all the skills to excel at her/his job and deliver results, they have no organisational hassles or obstructions to get in the way. Best of all they have an agreed longer term objective for their career; and an agreed roadmap for getting there…WITH YOU!!

Motivated? I think so.

Tony Latimer is a consultant in change management and team development. Based out of Singapore he runs programmes based on a combination of indoor and outdoor experiential activity and can be contacted through

3 Responses

    Yes, you can’t motivate me; only I can motivate me. You can definately inspire me. You can inspire me by ‘sharing a grand future’- by ‘inspiring a shared vision’ as research team of Kouzes and Posner found in course of their global research on exemplary leadership.

    Motivating myself is no easy task. It is also regulated by baggage of my past experiences. It is as easy as changing habits.If someone can help me ‘see’the way I see things, maybe I could change and motivate myself. I am looking for someone, who can see how do I see. You know someone?

  2. Motivation – still much to learn?
    A study recently reported by Diane Cunningham, an Ed Psych Professor from the University of Alberta (Canada) found that university students were motivated to perform to higher levels on tests when provided small financial incentives for each question answered correctly. Extrinsic motivation would appear to have a place under some circumstances.

    There are likely a number of confounding issues – maturity levels of individuals, the context, the task, personal needs, etc. that need to be addressed before one over simplifies the situation.

    I have found in my work with leaders and supervisors that there is often little agreement as to what motivates employees, let alone how to create a motivating climate. Perhaps there is much more to learn about this topic yet.

  3. Motivating People
    Motivation is a wonderful if somewhat nebulous subjects that many of us like to grapple with. Theories abound, most of which have considerable merit. Tony’s view succinctly articulates much of what I believe to be true about motivating people.

    My only rider would be about not being able to motivate people as this must come from within. While I accept this, I also see it as part of my role to try and establish a climate within the organisation that brings out the motivation in others. Thus while I cannot motivate directly, I can help establish a climate that is likely to induce motivation.

    Understanding needs and aspirations, of course, does go a long way to achieving this.

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