One of the core tasks of team leaders is keeping motivation and inspiration high. This doesn’t mean all great leaders are charismatic and inspiring. In fact, the opposite is often true. Motivating employees isn’t about what you say to them, it’s about understanding what they’re seeking from work.
And while understanding the unique desires of each team member might take a while, there’s a proven model for understanding human motivation that just might help you uncover your team’s motivation mysteries faster. In the mid-1980s, researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan outlined a model of motivation called “self-determination theory.” Their theory posited that intrinsic motivation comes in three forms: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
In this article, we’ll outline each pillar of motivation and offer some practical ideas for leveraging it to motivate your employees as a leader.
The first way to motivate your employees is through autonomy. In Self-Determination Theory, autonomy is the desire to be causal agents of our own lives. In other words, we want to call the shots on how we work and live. People who experience autonomy at work feel like they get to determine how they do their work, when they do their work, and maybe even who they get to work with. When people feel like they’re not in control, they get demotivated—feeling like they’re micromanaged or mere cogs in a machine.
For leaders, this means giving your team as much freedom as they can handle. You’ll still have to make sure they know what to do, and make sure they’re doing it. But you can probably give them more freedom over smaller details like when, where, and how. Depending on your work, there may be more policies or regulations to adhere too, but there’s often still a little bit of autonomy inside of those policies. And the more the policies dictate what to do, the less you as a leader want to add instructions on top of that. Instead, facilitate a conversation about what’s flexible and what’s not so that the team remembers the strict guidelines, but also appreciates that you’re giving autonomy where you can.
The second way to motivate your employees is to develop competence—yours and theirs. In Self-Determination Theory, competence refers to humans’ desire to control their outcomes and experience mastery. Humans want to grow. They want to develop new skills and learn new ideas. They want to continue to be challenged in their work—not left to do the same tasks for so long that they become routine and mundane. Despite common perspectives, stress isn’t always a bad thing. People are most motivated when the demands of the task match their capacity to achieve it. Which means unless they’re given new challenges, tasks that seemed difficult before can eventually become easy—and, hence demotivating.
For leaders, this means paying attention to each individual’s competence level and giving them tasks that match their capacity to do them. Some unavoidable tasks will be mundane, but that can’t be the majority of a motivated employee’s workload if they’re going to stay motivated. They’ll need new and challenging tasks and new leaders to help find those tasks. In addition, it means seeking out (and sometimes fighting for) developmental opportunities so employees have the chance to learn new topics or skills. It may even mean creating ones specific to the team. Regardless, letting employees know they’ll be given the growth opportunities will motivate them and keep them connected to the team.
The third way to motivate your employees is to build relatedness or connection. In Self-Determination Theory, relatedness is felt when people interact with others and experience (or demonstrate) caring toward them. Humans are social creatures, even the introverted ones. People want to work alongside others and know that their work connects to other’s work. Moreover, they want to know that when they do great work it helps others (even if all it does is helps others do great work).
For leaders, relatedness means building bonds with your team on a regular basis. It’s possible feel connected to others in the organization, but the primary method for feeling relatedness is through the teams people work on. Coordinating tasks and running “huddle” meetings to show how individual tasks connect to larger team projects builds relatedness through work. But sometimes nonwork activities that can even look like wasted time have a powerful effect on feelings of connection. And perhaps the most powerful way to feel relatedness is to give or receive help, which means creating opportunities for teammates to ask for help—and finding time to provide that help—will go a long way toward motivating through relatedness.
Often just looking at this list of three pillars of motivation, one becomes apparent as lacking on your team. If so, start focusing there first. But don’t neglect the others. Individuals need all three to feel optimally motivated, and a team needs all three in order to do its best work ever.
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