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How to tap into your staff’s intrinsic motivation

In my work as an executive coach I often find myself sitting across from a leader who asks, “But seriously Dan, why can’t they just do their job?” Their frustration is palpable and they’ll tell me they can’t understand the reason for their employees lack of intrinsic motivation. They might also tell me of all the strategies they’ve used to re-energise or re-engage their team, but inevitably nothing seems to work.

When faced with this scenario, one observation I offer is this: “Just do your job” is the lowest expectation we can have for a professional adult. We can’t set the bar any lower, and yet it seems, no matter how low we set the bar, there will always be members of our team who manage to limbo under it, and the reason for this is, people know the expectations you have of them, and invariably fulfil that prophecy.

It starts as a child

In my former life as a high school educator, I could predict with alarming precision how well a student would do in a given class based purely on how their teacher spoke about them. This is because of what is known as the Pygmalion Effect, that is typically, students will rise or fall to the level of expectation of their teachers, parents and wider community.

So powerful is the influence of a teacher’s expectation of students that State Education Departments and schools invest time, money and effort into building cultures of high expectations.

So, what does this have to do with leaders and employees in the workplace?

It continues into adulthood

Simply put, the Pygmalion Effect doesn’t expire when people turn eighteen.

The moment you want an individual to “just to do their job” is the moment your communication, motivation, mindset and even body language towards them changes. And they pick up on this, maybe not immediately, but over time they most certainly will, and they start acting accordingly. You’re left looking at them thinking, “Why don’t they care about their work?” whilst they’re left looking back at you thinking, “Why don’t they care about me?”

Rather than lowering expectations, the leader’s role is to set expectations as high as possible, and then create the conditions in which people are more likely to strive to achieve them.

A better way

If leaders can resist the carrot and stick approach to motivation and leverage the power of intrinsic motivation, they can endeavour to dial-up a sense of the following four factors for individuals and teams.

A sense of belonging

The extent to which an individual feels part of the team is an excellent indicator as to the level of impact they’ll seek to have. Members of your team who don’t feel a sense of belonging or camaraderie will likely gravitate to the fringes, both literally and metaphorically.

Autonomy

Leaders who understand the importance of autonomy, empower their team by giving them latitude to explore the type of work they do, how they do it, when they work, where they work, and with whom they work. Leaders seeking to increase autonomy ensure that voices are heard and valued, and decision making is devolved to everyone in the organisation.

Growth orientated goals

The right type of goal can light the fire of intrinsic motivation, whilst the wrong type can douse the flames in an instant.

Many organisations rely on setting KPIs or goals which are outcome-focused and whilst short-sighted leaders may view this as an effective way to motivate, more mindful leaders understand such goals merely lead to a veneer of compliance whilst often hiding poor performance or behaviour.

A better approach is to create a culture in which workers set, in partnership with a line manager, their own (autonomy) growth-orientated or learning goals. Broadly speaking, an individual who knows they can strive for mastery without the fear of failure or judgement, is more likely to be intrinsically motivated, engage better in their work and the workplace, and perform more consistently over the long term.

Purpose in their work

Over and above monetary compensation, the extent to which the work resonates with their core values and purpose will determine their levels of engagement. Workers who not only understand the purpose of their work but find meaning and purpose while doing the work – perhaps by having growth-orientated goals that they have had some autonomy in setting – are far more likely to fully engage.

Team members who have a sense of these four elements rarely need encouragement to “just do their job” and in many cases regularly go above and beyond their job description.


Dan Haesler, author of The Act of Leadership (Wiley, $29.95), is a high-performance coach whose clients include elite athletes and Olympians, as well as corporate and educational leaders. As a sought-after speaker, he regularly presents on topics of leadership, mindset, motivation and peak performance.

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