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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



September 30
14:27 2022



What you can and can’t do to get
people to do their best work

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

Getting people to do their best work is an issue that has baffled managers for centuries. The good news is that now we can do more than theorize about what works. Thanks to technology that allows us to observe how the brain functions and extensive research, we can move beyond theories about what motivates people to actual scientific evidence. What’s interesting is the evidence shows that the traditional “carrot and stick” motivation strategies that businesses commonly rely on aren’t effective and, in fact, decrease workforce morale.

Carrot and stick misses the mark

There are two broad categories of motivation—extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation comes from sources outside us and intrinsic from inside us. Extrinsic motivation, like the carrot (reward) and stick (punishment), has limited effectiveness. It produces short-term behavioral change but not lasting change, so the minute the reward or punishment is taken away, people return to their old behavior. Say, for example, you launch a rewards program that pays employees for ideas on improving customer service. Those motivated by money may submit ideas, but the minute the rewards program stops, so will the flow of suggestions. You may have a short-term impact in that you get ideas, but you won’t intrinsically motivate employees to care about customer service, to perceive themselves as central to process improvement or want to contribute their solutions.

Extrinsic motivation is most effective in situations where the goal is compliance and the work is mechanical or robotic in nature. That’s not the nature of the work we do today. The current environment requires people who can think, problem solve and collaborate. People need to fully engage their brainpower, not just comply with a rigid set of rules. Carrot and stick techniques cannot deliver the sustained level of motivation that managers need from their teams.

While managers can’t motivate the unmotivated, they do play a key role based on
the work environment
they create.
For the typical worker, motivation is situational, and that’s where the manager’s power lies.

How managers motivate

When it comes to motivation, people either have it or don’t have it. You can’t transfer your drive and enthusiasm into someone else, no matter how hard you try. If you’ve ever attempted to motivate an employee who lacks motivation, you know exactly what I mean. Day after day you’ll attempt to pump the person up, but little will change other than how depleted you feel.

While managers can’t motivate the unmotivated, they do play a key role based on the work environment they create. For the typical worker, motivation is situational, and that’s where the manager’s power lies. Managers shape much of the work environment, including how people see the organization, see themselves and their value, and their day-to-day experience on the job. The atmosphere the manager creates either demotivates, is neutral or supports people in doing their best work.

One person’s dream situation is another’s nightmare

Be mindful that one size does not fit all when it comes to motivation. In the corporate world there is a tendency to overestimate the power of money as the primary motivator. In the nonprofit world, there’s a belief that purpose and meaning matter most. The truth is that it’s dangerous to generalize. Some people value power and position and financial rewards; others may appreciate being part of a team, having a sense of purpose or growing professionally. Some professionals do their best work in a fast-paced, demanding environment; others crumble under pressure. Some individuals need freedom and flexibility to be at their best; others want structure. A critical step in creating a motivating environment is knowing your team members as individuals and what motivates each of them.

When assessing your staff, think twice before you label someone as unmotivated. It’s easy to attribute the lack of motivation to the individual, but it may be the situation that’s the problem. For example, the person may lack needed skills, not be a good fit for the job or feel unappreciated or unheard. A change in the situation may significantly boost motivation.

Universal motivators

While there are differences in what motivates people, there are three universally motivating factors: autonomy, competence and relatedness. They hold true whether you’re running a large financial services organization in New York or a small nonprofit in Mozambique. The three buckets comprise what’s called the psychological contract—the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. Meeting the three psychological needs leads to higher quality motivation, better performance and greater well-being and vitality. Conversely, when the contract is breached people become less satisfied and committed, contribute less, and perform worse.

Exploring the three factors

Let’s explore the three universally motivating factors.

  1. Autonomy. People need to perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, and that they have some freedom to make decisions for themselves. Sustained peak performance is a result of people acting because they choose to—not because they feel they have to.

Managers can support autonomy by:

  • Seeking others’ input and ideas
  • Offering meaningful choices
  • Empathizing with resistance and obstacles
  • Minimizing the use of controlling language
  • Providing a meaningful rationale for requested or required behavior

For example, the following decreases the feeling of autonomy: “Charlie, I need that proposal by Friday. I know you’re swamped already but it must be done.”

However, this scenario in-creases the feeling of autonomy: “Charlie, I need your help with the proposal for XYZ company. They’ve changed the due date for submissions and if we don’t get ours there by Friday, we’ll miss the opportunity. As you know, this is a really big one for our organization, and you understand the dynamics on this deal better than anyone. What do we need to do to enable you to get this done? Who from the team would you like to help you? Are there other priorities on your list that you need to delegate to someone else? Would it be better for you to work from home or in the office?”

  1. Relatedness. People need to care about and be cared about by others, to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives, and to feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.

Managers have a great opportunity to help people derive greater meaning from their work and deepen feelings of relatedness.

Ways to do this include:

  • Validating the exploration of feelings at work (e.g., asking people how they feel about an assignment or an incident that’s happened at work)
  • Taking the time to facilitate the development of people’s values at work and helping them align those values with their goals and professional development
  • Reinforcing how the individual’s work contributes to the whole
  • Demonstrating interest in the individual’s well-being and growth
  • Expressing appreciation for the value the person brings to the organization
  1. Competence. People need to feel effective and successful when undertaking activities. When there is a mismatch between what people must do and what people can do, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. Realistically, most jobs will push people beyond their comfort level and include tasks that are beneath their level of competence. That’s ok. What matters is that the dominant experience is competence.

Managers can support feelings of competence by:

  • Matching people, roles and responsibilities so that mastery is the dominant experience
  • Providing a pathway for active development and skill acquisition—always upward
  • Sharing feedback that is “informational,” not evaluative
  • Focusing praise on effort and specific accomplishments, not ability or comparisons with others

The importance of growth in motivation

Most professionals want to improve their skills, broaden their knowledge and advance in the organization. In 2022, McKinsey & Company conducted a global study that looked at people who quit their jobs or were planning on leaving their jobs and what motivated them to seek new positions. The number one reason was “lack of career development and advancement.” A recent LinkedIn study showed that 94% of employees would stay at an organization longer if it invested in their career development.

Environments that are conducive to growth help keep people motivated and doing their best work. Invest the time to understand your team members’ goals and career aspirations. Talk about the skills and capabilities needed to get them where they want to go. Then work together to build a development plan. Find ways to support that plan through the assignments you delegate, potential training programs, and opportunities to work with teammates who have those skills. Make the professional development conversation part of regular check-ins. Ask questions about what the people have learned over the past few weeks and what progress they’re seeing in skills. This helps them see where they’re growing and keeps their development on your radar.

Start asking a different question

Next time you sense that people lack motivation, don’t ask “how can I motivate them?” Skip the pep talk or the launch of a new employee of the month program. At best, they are short-term fixes. Instead, ask “What are we doing to create a work environment where employees choose to be motivated about work goals?” Then, take a hard look at whether your organization is meeting the three psychological needs—autonomy, relatedness and competence—that lead to higher quality and more lasting motivation.


The author

Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM ( CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at Follow Kimberly on and


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