How to keep your team motivated and happy

What motivates people do their best work? Is it the promise of reward? The fear of failure (and losing their job)? Pride? Prestige? Respect?

When we spoke to hundreds of RescueTime users from companies of all sizes, we found that the average employee is only 60% motivated to do their work every single day.

team motivation

Not great.

Even worse, when we asked people what they thought motivated them at work there were no clear answers. For some, it was salary. For others, it was the challenge or the freedom to choose when and where they work.

As a leader, understanding what motivates your team is one of the most important things you can do. After all, teams that are motivated and engaged are more productivehappier, and stick around longer.

But inspiring and motivating people doesn’t always come naturally. Especially because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for getting people fired up. So what can you do to boost team motivation?

By reading advice from leaders at some of the world’s largest companies, we uncovered just what it takes to motivate a high-performing team.

1. Give your team questions, not answers

It might seem like the best team leaders guide their employees to the finish line. But too much guidance can actually backfire when it comes to team motivation.

As James Everingham, Head of Engineering at Instagram, explains:

“The observer effect is real in the workplace, and you can affect the outcome of any project as a manager simply by inserting yourself.

“Often, a manager will take their team into a room and say, “Here’s what we need to do,” as they start sketching on a whiteboard. They’re trying to add value, but if you’re in any position of authority and you do this, you’ve just limited the number of outcomes and your path to success pretty dramatically.”

This isn’t to say you should step back completely. Just that you need to understand what motivates people to do their best work.

Research shows employees find the opportunity to pursue meaningful work more important than salary, working conditions, or opportunities for promotion. But for work to be meaningful, employees need to be able to connect with it on a personal level. In short, no one has ever found purpose in being told exactly what to do.

Good teams want answers. Great teams want questions. Click To Tweet

To keep your team motivated, you need to get out of your own way. Instead of giving solutions, ask questions. Outline the problem and what success looks like (i.e. “We want to increase revenue X%”). This way, all paths to success are still possible and your team is motivated to seek solutions that they connect with and that challenge them.

This means coming up with non-judgmental, thought-provoking questions. Which isn’t always easy. “Asking questions designed to empower and not instruct requires a lot of forethought,” says Everingham.

“Consider putting 10 minutes on your calendar before any meeting to think through which questions will be helpful and won’t interfere with your team’s ability to win.”

2. Link rewards to team success, not individual accomplishments

team motivation individual

A team is a very different beast from a single member. As such, team motivation isn’t just individual motivation scaled up. As soon as you bring a group of people together, you have to account for not only their individual motivators, skills, and weaknesses, but also how they interact as a group.

To dive the best results and insulate your team from workplaces politics, it’s important to link rewards to the overall success of a project. Not just how each individual performs.

Rewards don’t have to be monetary, either. Success could mean more visibility in the company, better chances for career growth, and a larger impact on the organization’s purpose and mission. It could also just mean more attention from you.

“Leaders consistently underestimate the power of acknowledgement to bring forth employees’ best efforts,”

wrote leadership coach Lisa Lai in the Harvard Business Review.

Simply recognizing contributions and showing appreciation can be a powerful tool for team motivation. The bulk of your team is there and working as hard as they can to please you and do good work.

If you don’t let people know when you’re happy or excited or impressed, you’re limiting their potential and squashing their motivation.

RescueTime can help you track your team’s progress and successes. Learn more here. 

3. Set aside space for experimentation

During the Industrial Revolution, managers purposefully restricted workers’ “seeking systems”—our internal drive to explore and learn about our environments, extract meaning, and look for creative solutions. At the time, employees had a single task, and it seemed efficient to simply cut them off from any other choices.

Unfortunately, some leaders still follow this style of management. But while it may seem more “productive” to limit your team’s tasks to simply what they were hired to do. This is killing team motivation.

Jaak Panksepp, the late pioneer of neuroscience, said it best:

“When the seeking systems are not active, human aspirations remain frozen in an endless winter of discontent.”

Experimentation—within boundaries—empowers and excites employees. Your team wants to do their best work and push their own limits. And when they feel limited, they lose motivation.

But when workers are allowed to be creative at work they’re happier, more motivated, and have a better chance of finding flow. In fact, when the seeking system is engaged, it releases dopamine—a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure.

To invite this kind of thinking, Daniel M. Cable, author of Alive At Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Dosays managers have a few easy options.

First, you can build a culture of curiosity where employees feel encouraged to play around with their interests (within the framework of their job demands). Second, leaders should encourage self-expression, and let team members re-craft their jobs around their specific strengths.

Unlike the short-term motivation of things like bonuses, an activated seeking system has longer-term impacts on our motivation and our overall well-being.

4. Show your team how and why their work matters

Team motivation purpose

There’s no stronger team motivation than understanding that the work you’re doing matters.

When daily tasks are tied to larger goals and motivations, it’s easier to feel like you need to push through for the greater good. But in the midst of a project with a deadline looming, it can be hard to poke your head up and tie the work to its initial purpose.

But as a leader, you can make sure your team always understands what they’re doing, why, and how it all relates to the purpose that brought you together.

As leadership coach Lisa Lai explains, start by sharing context about why you’re asking your team to do the work they’re doing. What are you doing as an organization or a team? Who benefits from the work and how? What does success look like and what is their role in deliver on that promise?

It’s easy to let purpose slip when you’re heads down on work. But employees are motivated when their work is relevant. And it’s your job to show them that.

5. Tell better team stories

Think about every sports film you’ve ever seen where the team was down with seconds to go in the game. What was it that motivated them to pull together? Nine times out of ten it was a story their coach told.

There are few things more motivating than a good story. As Dan Faul, VP of Online Operations at Facebook writes:

“Whenever I meet new leaders, I always talk about their responsibility to inspire people—to tap into that intrinsic motivation to be there are work hard.

“We’re fortunate to work in an industry where meaningful work is getting done, and people badly want their work to be meaningful. Stories connect the two. It’s the skill every leader needs to learn.”

The stories you tell are what gives your team’s work purpose. They’re what gives them motivation to come back every day and do their best.

As Faul explains, great team stories all have the same factors: they connect to a mission. They amplify emotion. They show that you’re in service to your employees. And let them see that you’ve put yourself in their position.

The best way to boost team motivation is to hold yourself accountable to the same standards

Team motivation is difficult. Any time you’re dealing with a group of different, unique individuals, you’re going to run up against some friction. But it’s an incredible experience when they all come together.

And remember, there’s really no way to trick people into being motivated in the long-term. If you want your team to be rigorously accountable, then you need to be that as well. As Instagram’s James Everingham puts it,

“Encourage people to be very clear about what they have to do and what they’re doing to do by being that way yourself first.”

How do you keep your team (or yourself) motivated to do their best work? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.