In the past two weeks, I’ve been asked one question more than any other; “how do I motivate my people right now?” The preamble to this question centres on the ongoing uncertainty and increasing fatigue – mental and physical – resulting from COVID. In effect, leaders are worried that their people are starting to contribute less and want to understand how to ‘rally the troops’.

The question is earnest and clearly well intended, but it contains a big flaw; it assumes that it’s your job to motivate others. This may shock you, but you cannot motivate anybody to do anything they don’t want to. You can inspire, challenge, nurture, coach and guide those you lead, but their motivation belongs to them.

This may sound like semantics, but if you accept my provocation, it contains significant consequences. Most leaders spend a disproportionate amount of time with the people who don’t really want to move very far or very quickly, at the expense of those who do. The latter give us an exponential return on our time, attention and energy, yet we typically invest most of it in the former; those who least deserve it.

Think about it this way; if you want a donkey to move, and the only way to achieve this outcome is to dangle a carrot or hit it with a stick, then who is really motivated, you or the donkey? Extrinsic motivation is exhausting for all concerned, and you probably have enough to do already.

I learned this lesson the hard way, a long time ago. I now understand with absolute conviction, that my clients must care more about their organization and their outcomes than I do. Similarly, your team members should care more about their job and their outcomes than you do.

So, short of accepting responsibility for others’ motivation, what can you do to fuel the fire within your people? The following three tactics can get you moving in the right direction;

Enable them to reboot

If your people are mentally and physically fatigued by the past few weeks, give them some time off to regenerate – even if it’s just a long weekend. Encourage them to switch off work-related technology for that period of time and immerse fully in whatever gives them a sense of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s likely they will come back to work with a greater sense of energy for the job and appreciation for your support. Taking some time out to regenerate yourself will also set a great example.

Establish a gap

Rather than sell your vision, insights and ideas, ask your people what they are striving for professionally. Understand, in rich detail, what success looks like through their eyes. Once you know what ten out of ten looks like, help them understand where they are today against that vision. The gap between where they are and where they want to be, is a wellspring of potential energy and enthusiasm that you can channel and nurture.

Make a call to excellence

There are times when even your most motivated people can fall short of expectations or enter a period of indifference. This is a perfect moment to make a call to excellence. Remind them of their strengths, skills and achievements, and challenge them to be the best version of themselves. It might sound like; “even though you are struggling right now, I know what you are truly capable of. How can I help get you to back to where you belong?” Rather than persecute them, or accept a lower standard, this tactic works because it’s a vote of confidence. Most people will seize the opportunity to lift their game and will be grateful to you for helping them get there.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that certain individuals or teams will not demonstrate the motivation that you are looking for, in spite of these and other tactics. If this is the case, you have a pragmatic decision to make; is it acceptable or not. If it is acceptable – and it may be – then allow those people to get on with their job and focus the bulk of your time and attention on those who are already highly motivated. If it’s not acceptable to you, then you need to lean into a difficult conversation.

I hope this blog will help you to nurture the intrinsic motivation of your people through this period of uncertainty and beyond, so together you can rise to the challenges ahead.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 200 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered some 50 cases of business transformation and more than 1,000 cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

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