Motivating Your Team Doesn’t Have To Be Hard

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How do you make your team care about the work they are doing?

If you’re a manager, you’ve probably asked that question a few times in your career. And you’ve probably made some attempts at motivating your team already. Did you whip out the company mission statement? How did that go over?

Even if you think your team is doing the most boring work, like turning numbers into different numbers on a computer screen, you can still inspire your team to feel something in their work. This is such a crucial part of great leadership, and it’s not something you can fake or beg people to do.

Employees don’t want mission statements or half-hearted enthusiasm to lift their spirits at work. They want to feel meaning in their work and understand their impact beyond the bottom line or increasing shareholder value.

They want to know “What good is our work doing?”

We want to know our work has a rationale behind it—a purpose, no matter how small. And lack of any rationale or contribution creates a lack of motivation.

The key to motivating your team is to show them the meaning in their work and to help them know their impact. These terms may sound similar, but there are subtle differences that make each important. Meaning is knowing that your contribution counts, that your task isn’t just busy work, and that what you literally do contributes to the larger picture of the business. Impact is knowing who is counting on you.

Most of us think of meaning with a capital M. It’s why we think of doctors, nurses, or firefighters as doing Meaningful work. They’re saving lives. But the research on human motivation and team collaboration suggests something different. It’s okay to offer lowercase m meaning as well. In fact, it’s more than ok. Small m meaning dramatically increases the big M: Motivation.

For impact, well, think about the last time you felt engaged and motivated at work, or the last time you worked on a team that was inspiring and energizing to be a part of. You’re probably not thinking about the last time your boss recited the company mission statement verbatim.

Instead, you’re probably thinking about the last time you got a “thank you” from a client or coworker, or when you found out how your work mattered to someone else.

Taken together – meaning and impact, create what is called a “Pro-social purpose.” And research suggests motivating you team with prosocial purpose leaves them not only more motivated to pursue objectives, but also more likely to work together as a team.

Take KPMG’s approach for instance. Struggling with low morale, they didn’t just throw perks or pay raises at the problem. Instead, they turned to storytelling, launching the “We Shape History” campaign in 2014. The goal of the campaign was to showcase pivotal moments in history that KPMG as a firm was involved in. KPMG managed the logistics of the Lend-Lease Act during World War II, which helped the United States aid the allies. KPMG audited the 1994 South African Presidential Election, which saw Nelson Mandela make history as the first black president. The campaign worked to raise awareness of the impact KPMG’s past work had on history, but what happened next worked even better to raise morale.

After being inspired, employees were then tasked with finding the impact their roles had—at their level. Not a companywide impact, but how their work made an impact from an individual level. They set up an app on the company’s internal website that let any of the 30,000 plus employee submit their own stories. They called it the “10,000 Stories Challenge,” but didn’t take long for them to blow past that target.

Within 6 months, KPMG had collected 42,000 stories, with powerful examples of personal impact like:

“I help farmers grow – because I support the farm credit system that keeps family farms in business.”

“I restore neighborhoods – because I audit community development programs that revitalize low-income communities.”

“I combat terrorism – because I help banks prevent money laundering that can go toward terrorism.”

Leadership at the company got the results they wanted. Employees felt their work made more of a difference. Retention was better. The company became a top place to work.

Purpose became a regular conversation on the individual team level.

Research on Prosocial Purpose

In 2014, researcher Adam Grant and his colleagues were working with their university’s donation call center. These call centers are manned by student workers who are given a list of alumni and a phone and tasked with calling each person and reading from a script that always ends in a request for a donation. The job is boring. It’s draining to be hung up on, yelled at, or worse. It’s relatively thankless. In fact, when Grant and his colleagues showed up, the first thing they noticed when touring the call center was a sign in one student’s cubicle. It read “Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit, you get a warm feeling but no one else notices.”

The researchers wanted them to feel noticed—but obviously not for wetting themselves. They wondered if getting the call center employees to notice the difference they were making would have a motivating effect on them. So, they took the break time student workers received and used it to run an experiment. During a five-minute break, some of the workers were visited by a fellow student who had received scholarship funds raised by the call center and they heard how receiving the funds had positively impacted him.

And when the researchers followed up a month later, they noticed that just that small meeting with a scholarship recipient had a big impact on the callers. The workers who got to meet the people directly served by their work worked twice as hard. They made double the number of calls per hour and spent double the number of minutes on the phone. Their weekly revenue went from an average of around $400 to more than $2,000 in donations.

It’s impossible to overstate how big this effect is.

The workers didn’t get any additional perks or benefits. They didn’t get any training. And they certainly didn’t get asked to memorize and internalize the university’s mission statement. Instead, they got a five-minute chat with someone whose life was made better by the work they were doing.

Putting Prosocial Purpose Into Practice

So, when it comes to motivating your team, the key is to demonstrate to your colleagues the work they’re doing is meaningful and has an impact is a big part of their job. Maybe the most important. Prosocial purpose won’t happen overnight, but here are a few things to bring Meaning to the forefront and have Impact lead the way.

Tactic: Make metrics meaningful.

Organizations love metrics. They’re what allow the company to assess the performance of the business and their employees. They can be insightful. They can be cruel. But metrics aren’t meaning. Performance metrics get senior leaders excited when they show business is booming. And managers feel crummy when performance metrics for their team are lagging.

Often the blur of trackable metrics makes it difficult to remember why metrics matter. That’s why you as a leader need to readily remind your team. Use metrics that inspire meaning.

Tactic: Share a win every day.

Most organizations celebrate wins, but they’re often limited to the successful end of a project or hitting an important milestone. But on the team level, high-performing teams share wins much more frequently. It may sound like that’s taking too much time for something of too little importance, you’re wrong. People get bogged down on the small tasks that make up the day-to-day experience. You might have established meaning, but it’s like a muscle. It’ll go away if you don’t exercise it. Remind your team. Find wins and express them to the team. And where appropriate, go more public past your team. This sounds simple but imagine yourself in their position. A win is a win, no matter who you are. Wins feel good. Wins create meaning.

Tactic: Collect Impact Stories

KPMG was certainly the best example of this. You as a leader need to be on the lookout. Collect threads wherever they come from. Part of being a good leader is keeping tabs on those stories and using them to create that prosocial purpose. And take a note from KPMG to– bring your team into the storytelling process. Have them find impact in their role. But as their manager, keep most of the storytelling work on your plate. Collect them, showcase them, and keep them coming.

Tactic: Pause for Purpose

You know – when people talk about jobs with real meaning and impact, we’re quick to say teacher, firefighter, doctors, or nurses. And we’re correct, those are jobs that have and provide a TON of meaning. Do doctors and nurses need reminding of their purpose? Well, consider this: at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the entire team of surgeons, nurses, and support staff pause before every surgery to take a moment to remember the patient they are about to operate on. They break up what would be a routine procedure with a powerful reminder of the humanity behind what they’re doing.

If prominent surgeons are pausing for purpose, you and your team can do this too.

Tactic: Outsource Inspiration

Teams, especially at the entry-level, can be put far from the people who they serve. A customer testimonial video or comment only goes so far. Think of this as an extension of the impact story tactic. Bring the story to them. Bring in clients or customers to meet with your team, even just briefly. It only took 5 min for the call center to be inspired. Or if you need to, send them to the story. Take your team out of the office, out of the zoom meeting, and into the world where their impact is. Field trips aren’t just for elementary schools.


On first reading, a lot of this article might sound difficult. It reads like fancy business school jargon on motivating your team. But it’s actually relatively simple. In fact, the entire article can be summarized in just a single sentence.

“People want to do work that matters, and they want to work for leaders who tell them they matter.”

No matter where you get started as long as it’s in the service of one of those things—letting them know their work matters and letting them know they matter to you—you’ll be moving the needle on how much your team feels inspired and how much they feel energized to do work and you didn’t even have to recite the company’s mission statement which is actually a lot harder to remember than anything in this article.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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