How to motivate your team (and yourself)

If you’re leading a team, it’s not always a simple task to motivate those who look up to you. The best approach to motivation can depend on the person, but it also depends on the type of work.

There are two main kinds of motivation: external and internal. External motivation covers approaches like “if, then” rewards, where a certain performance or amount of work entitles the worker to a reward. This approach can be useful for purely mechanical work, where you’re trying to motivate someone to work harder or faster.

But for creative work that requires innovative thinking, “if, then” rewards can actually backfire, causing people to perform worse. This kind of work responds better to internal motivation, where workers have their own reasons for wanting to do a good job.

Although your approach to motivation will change depending on the type of work, having a few research-backed strategies up your sleeve can be handy for those times you (or your team) just can’t get going.

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How to motivate your team

Not all the best approaches to motivation are appropriate for foisting on others. But this set of strategies from a variety of studies are useful for encouraging your team to work hard.

Show appreciation

It sounds simple, but showing your team that you appreciate their work could be all that’s needed for a boost in motivation. In a survey of 2,000 working Americans, 81% said they would work harder for an appreciative boss. 70% also said they’d feel better about their work and themselves if their boss showed appreciation more often.

Backing up these attitudes, a 2011 review of over 50 studies by the London School of Economics found people tend to put in more effort at work if they feel appreciated.

Wharton professor Adam Grant says “A sense of appreciation is the single most sustainable motivator at work.” This is because, according to Grant, “the sense that other people appreciate what you do sticks with you,” unlike promotions, or cash bonuses, to which we adjust quickly.

A study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely tested this idea at an Intel factory in Israel. The study offered some workers a small cash bonus each day for completing their work, while other workers were rewarded with a compliment from their boss, and a third group received vouchers for free pizza.

Initially, pizza proved the best motivator, with compliments close behind. The cash bonus performed worst as a motivator, with the cash bonus group being outperformed on day two by a control group who weren’t receiving any extra reward.

Across a full week of daily rewards, compliments from the boss turned out to be the best motivator.

These results back up Grant’s idea that cash tends to be a bad option for motivating your team, and showing that you appreciate their efforts may be the best thing you can do.

Reward your team upfront

The human brain works in funny ways. One of the strange things about our brains is that we feel the pain of losing something that belongs to us more strongly than we feel the joy of gaining something, even the value of those two things is equal. This principle is known as loss aversion, and it makes us work hard to hang onto things we’re at risk of losing.

What this means in terms of rewards is that we’re more likely to work hard to avoid losing a reward we’ve already been given than we are to work hard to earn a reward.

A teacher showed this effect in his students by teaching the same consumer behavior class twice, with a small twist. In both classes, students were given the option to take quizzes throughout the class. Each quiz they passed was worth 1 point.

But here’s where the classes differed: the first class had a required exam at the end, but students who earned five points from the optional quizzes also earned the right to skip the exam.

In the second class, the exam was optional from the beginning, but any student who didn’t earn five points from the optional quizzes lost their right to skip the exam.

From the first class, 43% of students earned the five points required to skip the exam. But in the second class, 82%—that is, nearly double—earned the five points. When asked why they made the effort to pass all the optional quizzes, students in the second class said they felt they owned the right to skip the exam, and didn’t want to have that taken away.

This experiment shows how we act differently when it comes to earning a reward or stopping something that already belongs to us from being taken away. Although the reward was the same for both classes—the chance to skip the final exam—the students were more likely to take and pass the optional quizzes if they were given the reward from the beginning.

One way to use this information to motivate your team would be to give them a reward upfront, rather than offering a way to earn the reward, but then provide a condition that could lead to the reward being taken away. For instance, rather than offering your team a long weekend if they complete a particular project on time, offer them the long weekend unless they don’t complete the project, in which case they lose the right to that extra time off.

Show your team the outcomes of their efforts

Working hard to keep something that’s ours offers a very tangible result: either we keep the thing we’re fighting for, or we don’t. We tend to like tangible results when it comes to motivation.

For instance, seeing the results of our efforts tends to motivate us to continue working hard.

In one study, participants were asked to make Lego models. Some participants had their completed models kept under their desks, to be disassembled after the study had finished. Others had each model disassembled by researchers as soon as it was completed.

All participants were paid a small amount for each completed model, which decreased slightly each time.

Now, even though both groups of participants knew their models would be destroyed eventually, those whose work was kept under the desk until they finished completed an average of 11 models before quitting, whereas those whose models were disassembled immediately only completed an average of 7.

It seems being able to see the results of their efforts helped to motivate the participants to keep working longer.

Another study tested this idea on workers at a fundraising call center at the University of Michigan. Some of the workers in the study were visited for 10 minutes by a student who’d benefited from the center’s work.

A month later, despite those same workers saying the student’s visit had no impact on their work, researchers found they were spending 142% longer on the phone, and the center’s income had increased overall by 171%.

It seems a tangible example of the benefits of their work motivated the center’s employees to work harder.

You can put this into practice by putting your team into direct contact with the people who benefit from their work—whether that’s sharing customer feedback, rotating everyone through customer support, or even showcasing the effects of the work your team does with an offsite visit to see how customers are using your products every day.

Encourage camaraderie

There are natural benefits to being part of a team—one of which is motivation.

A study tested the effects of camaraderie on motivation by giving participants puzzles to work on. Some participants were introduced to another who would be their “teammate” during the study, while others were told they’d be working alone.

In fact, all participants were taken to separate rooms to work on their puzzles alone. For those who’d met a teammate initially, the researchers created fake notes of support purporting to come from those same teammates.

Those participants who believed they had a teammate who’d written them a note worked 50% longer on their puzzles, on average, than those who believe they were working alone from the outset. “Teammate” participants also rated the puzzles as more interesting and fun.

If you’re already working with a team, try fostering camaraderie among teammates before a big project or when a deadline in looming. The sense that they’re not alone could boost motivation enough to get your team through those tough periods.

How to motivate yourself

Motivating your team only goes so far if you’re also struggling. Here are some suggestions from research that you can try on yourself when you need a boost.

Reflect on your performance (and how much pride you feel)

We commonly think of pride as a bad thing, but research has shown it can be quite useful when it comes to motivation.

According to Jessica Tracy, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of Take Pride, there are two kinds of pride: hubristic pride, which comes from the accolades of others, and authentic pride, which is a purely internal enjoyment of a job well done.

Hubristic pride, says Tracy, is dangerous, because it leads us to do things purely for the approval of others. But authentic pride can be surprisingly useful.

Tracy’s research shows a lack of authentic pride in our efforts can be highly motivating. When we reflect on a poor performance in which we don’t have authentic pride in our efforts, this spurs us on to try harder—and tends to lead to better results.

Tracy’s research has explored this idea with students after taking an exam, and with members of a running club after a race. In both cases, they found a poor performance and a lack of authentic pride led to a plan to improve in future, as well as better results next time.

The key to this motivating effect, says Tracy, is reflecting on your performance and whether you feel proud of your efforts. If you believe you performed poorly due to something within your control (for instance, your strategy or your training regime), a lack of authentic pride could motivate you to try harder next time.

Try setting aside a few minutes after each performance you put in—whether that’s a presentation, running a meeting, or delivering a project—and reflect on your performance and whether you feel authentic pride in your efforts.

Reminisce about past performance

Sometimes when you’re struggling to find the motivation to get started on something difficult, it can feel like nothing will work. You might even wonder how you ever managed to do this in the past, when you’re struggling so much to get motivated now.

In fact, this may be a very useful line of thinking. One study found participants who recalled a memory of doing something difficult in the past—in this case, exercise—were subsequently more motivated to do it in the future. Even with no prompting from the researchers beyond the memory exercise, these participants were more likely to exercise following the experiment.

But here’s the best part: even participants who remembered a negative memory of exercising were more motivated to exercise afterwards. The memory doesn’t even have to be positive for it to help with motivation.

So next time you’re struggling to do something difficult, try conjuring up some motivation by thinking about the last time you did it—whether that memory is good or bad.

Motivation isn’t easy to wrangle. It’s not always going to be there when we need it, and few methods work reliably to conjure it up 100% of the time.

But when you’re working to deadlines and you’ve got a team to lead, it can help to have some ideas up your sleeve to give your team—and yourself—a boost when it’s needed.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.