Re-thinking Motivation for the 21st Century

Dec 22, 2019 5 Min Read
Team members carrying a cup they won at a game
Real Motivation is About Connecting People To The Right Intention

Imagine your child plays football. They enjoy it, but they could certainly try harder on the pitch. Goals are thin on the ground, and the kid is desperate to improve.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much motivation, so you offer him some motivation: for every goal he scores, you’ll give him RM5. Seems like quite an effective strategy to inspire a young footballer to improve his game, right?
Actually…it’s more likely to impair his performance rather than improve it. Why is that?

According to John Hittler, author of The Motivation Trap, the old-fashioned carrot-and-stick approach no longer works as an effective motivation tool. In fact, as a long-term strategy, it’s always been a terrible approach.

The child who gets RM5 for every goal he scores (but not for assists) becomes greedy with the ball. He never passes, which messes up the game for everyone and skews the kid’s perception of teamwork. His approach to achieving anything becomes all about ‘me’ and never about ‘us’.

Read: Making The Most Of Role Models For Our Children

For Hittler, motivation is mostly a manipulation, designed to get quick results but without thinking through the consequences. Think of the CEO who tells his team, “If everyone stays behind to finish the project, I’ll buy you all free drinks and pizza.” It might get the team excited on that one occasion – but it’s not sustainable as a leadership approach.

When we try to motivate people, says Hittler, we are basically trying to coerce or manipulate them into doing something they’d rather not do. When a leader’s efforts to motivate their team inevitably wears thin, they’re at a loss as to why their team isn’t as enthusiastic as it was before.

When he was in Kuala Lumpur in 2018, I had the chance to interview new media entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk, who believes that the reason why people are often demotivated within organisations is “because it’s not their business. Why would you expect someone to care as much or more about your business than you do?”

It’s an important question for leaders to ask themselves, “Why should anyone else care about this business as much as I do?” They can offer all the well-stocked pantries, ping-pong tables and giant beanbags, but it still won’t translate to a highly-motivated team, because – as several studies have shown – extrinsic motivation doesn’t work over the long term. Even when people are paid a high salary, it’s unlikely to motivate them beyond their current levels.

Read also: 10 Tips to Help You Stay Motivated

So, what does motivate people? Let’s take a look at four ways that leaders can truly engage employees:

1. Connect the vision to a purpose people can relate to

If I’m in an organisation and told that I’m “a very important part of the team”, it doesn’t resonate. It’s generic, it’s abstract, and it’s about as inspiring as having a green salad for dinner on a Saturday. But if a leader understands my strengths and what I value, they can connect that to the company’s vision. As a result, it makes me see how I’m an important part of the team and understand why my contributions make a difference. In other words, find out what intrinsically motivates people, and let them know how their values impact the organisation.

2. Ditch the values – have directives instead

What company doesn’t ‘strive for excellence’ or ‘seeks to be inclusive’? Having a nice list of company values will achieve just that: having a nice list of ideals that no-one pays attention to because…well, why would they?

Real motivation is about connecting people to the right intention. Our brains tend to follow clear instructions rather than vague concepts; it’s why we like the Mona Lisa but can’t process abstract art so easily, because we are drawn to what makes the most sense, most quickly.

Instead of having five values that talk about how “We strive for excellence”, having five actions instead (which are bred into the culture), is much more likely to have a lasting motivational effect. Compare, “We strive for excellence” to “Do your best every day for your team and your customers”. The directive instils a sense of personal responsibility, while the value is, well…it’s so cliché it’s forgettable.

3. Place actual trust in your team

Leaders talk about Steve Jobs’ quote so often (the one about hiring smart people so that they can tell you what to do) they might as well put it on a t-shirt for all the good it does. How many leaders nod with enthusiasm at this common-sense approach to leadership, and yet continue to micromanage? How many leaders fail to listen to employees’ ideas, let alone trust them enough to execute them?

Read this: Micromanagement vs Empowerment: A Leader’s Role in People Management

For as long as leaders continue to pay lip-serve to placing trust in their team, while in reality treating them like cogs in a wheel, they’ll be met with a workforce that’s compliant rather than creative; and (somewhat) obedient rather than engaged.

4. Ask employees what they want for themselves

In an ideal world, your employees would love your business just as much as you do, but it’s not and they don’t. As much as leaders might think it, a workforce isn’t a monolithic entity – it’s made up of individuals, who have different motivations and ambitions. By tapping into those ambitions and providing some way of supporting your employees to realising their personal goals, as a leader you’re demonstrating the quality that you’re hoping to receive: helping others to achieve what’s important to them.

What better way to show your team that you see and respect their personal growth by helping to nurture it in a way that they need? It would certainly go much further than installing yet another dartboard in the chill-out room…

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Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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