How to Motivate Your Team (in Good Times and Bad)

Motivating yourself is hard enough. Motivating other people? Forget about it.

And yet, it's your responsibility as a manager to keep team members motivated through the ups and downs of start-up life so they can reach peak performance in their roles.

While a difficult task, it can be made easier with the right guidance.

In this article, we’ve outlined 6 steps you can take to help your team become—and stay—motivated. 

How to Motivate Your Team: 6 Essential Steps to Peak Performance

Follow these six steps to increase employee motivation in your team:

Step 1: Identify and Minimize Demotivators

Micromanagement, lack of autonomy, unfair treatment, and toxic workplace politics can seriously deflate motivation levels. 

But there are subtler demotivators too - unclear expectations, monotonous tasks, and insufficient resources or training can also take a toll.

Keep tabs on what lifts your employees up and what brings them down. You could have open conversations one on one and as a team or you could send out an anonymous survey if you think they’ll be more honest.

Once you've identified the key demotivators, it's time to take action to minimize their effects. 

Implement changes to policies, procedures, or management styles that are holding your team back. Provide training to sharpen their skills and re-energize their passion. And definitely prioritize team building activities to strengthen bonds and remind everyone why you're all in this together.

This step will create a baseline that you can build motivation on top of.

Step 2: Set Clear Goals and Expectations From the Onset

Employees feel motivated when they know exactly what they’re working toward, especially if what they’re working towards benefits them in some way. That could be a promotion, a bonus, or simply the satisfaction of achieving and contributing to something bigger than them. 

Of course, those achievements are usually an outcome of meeting specific expectations and goals in their role. 

Sit down with your team and lay it all out there. What are the big-picture objectives? What are the specific milestones and deadlines? What does success look like?

By aligning everyone around a shared vision and tangible targets, you'll give your team a powerful sense of purpose and direction. They'll understand how their individual efforts contribute to the greater goal, making their work feel more meaningful and impactful.

But it's not just about dumping a laundry list of to-dos on them. Take the time to explain the "why" behind the goals. When people understand the reasoning and importance, they're more likely to buy into the mission wholeheartedly.

Make sure the goals aren’t so lofty they won’t achieve them, but equally you want to make sure they’re not too easy.

📚Relevant reading: How to Write a Performance Review for an Employee  

Step 3: Understand How Each Team Member ‘Ticks’

Three core needs drive us as people. Those are:

  • Achievement (getting things done)
  • Power (having influence over others)
  • Belonging (having good relationships)

Which one of those drives you may be different from what drives each of your employees. 

Maybe Amy thrives on public recognition while Sam prefers keeping a low profile. Or perhaps Jordan feels most motivated by tackling new challenges head-on, while Cameron needs a bit more guidance and support.

As their manager, you need to take the time to really understand what makes each individual on your team tick. 

Have open and honest conversations to learn about their values, interests, and workplace needs. You could even ask them to complete a motivation assessment.

You want to uncover what makes them feel valued and excited to work. Once you've got a handle on their unique motivators, you can tailor your approach.

Step 4: Create a Work Environment they Want to Work In

Ever felt the ‘Sunday scaries’? That overwhelming feeling of dread that precedes a work week. How did it affect your motivation to do good work when that week did actually get underway?

A healthy work environment and job satisfaction is the perfect base for motivation. 

You want to make sure they have:

  • Flexible schedules where they can balance work with life
  • Professional and personal development opportunities 
  • A physically safe and comfortable work environment (ergonomic set-up, etc)
  • A psychologically safe environment
  • Work that is engaging and meaningful
  • A team culture that values respect, diversity, inclusivity, and collaboration

It's all about catering to their diverse needs and empowering them to do their best work in a way that feels authentic to them. 

But motivation, in a way, is contagious. When one team member is excited about the work they’re doing, their team members are more likely to feel the same. To capitalize on that, encourage teamwork and collaboration, especially on shared projects.

📚Relevant reading: How to Overcome Unconscious Bias as a Manager (because bias can make work unbearable)

Step 5: Provide Regular Feedback, Recognition, and Encouragement

Dopamine is a powerful drug. And you get a hit of it every time you get positive feedback, recognition, and encouragement. 

A good manager makes sure their team gets plenty of positive and constructive feedback to help them get direction, recognition to make them feel valued, and encouragement to keep them going in tough times. 

Have frequent one on one meetings (weekly is ideal) to discuss wins, challenges, and areas for growth. 

Don't just focus on what needs improvement though - be sure to provide positive feedback too. Celebrate those small victories and moments of excellence. A little kudos and appreciation go a long way in boosting confidence and morale.

When it comes to recognition, don’t be afraid to get creative. Give shout-outs during team meetings or in the company newsletter. Create an #employeeappreciation Slack channel for callouts. Or keep it old-school with handwritten notes or small treats. 

Step 6: Know How to Spot Burnout

Even the most motivated employees can hit a wall if they're running on fumes for too long.

As team leader you need to know how to spot when this happens.

So, what does burnout look like? It could be decreased productivity or quality of work. Maybe you notice more negative attitudes creeping in. Or your team seems increasingly disengaged during meetings and brainstorms that once fired them up.

Physical signs like exhaustion, irritability, and lack of concentration are also red flags. If Janelle, who's usually bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the mornings, has been dragging herself through the door lately, it may be time for a check-in.

The key is catching these warning signs early and taking action. 

Have open and honest conversations to understand the root causes. Is the workload too demanding? Are they feeling underappreciated? Is there a toxic dynamic weighing them down? Listen with empathy and be prepared to make adjustments.

You may need to reset expectations, redistribute duties, or enforce boundaries around work-life balance. Or it could be as simple as encouraging paid time off or mental health days to allow for some much-needed rest and recharging.

By staying vigilant and addressing burnout head-on, you'll protect that priceless motivational energy that powers your team.

Keeping your team members motivated through tough times

When the going gets tough, it's easy for motivation levels to plummet. Maybe it's a failed product launch, tough negotiations with a client, or organizational restructuring causing uncertainties. 

Either way, you may find your team needs a little extra support and coaching to see them through.

The key is being proactive instead of reactive. Get ahead of those motivational dips by implementing resilience-building practices. 

Consistent communication, celebrating small wins, and creating a supportive environment will lay the groundwork for bouncing back stronger. Your approach won’t really change from the steps we outlined above, you’ll just need to pay closer attention and be on hand to support them even more. 

If you do find yourselves hitting a rocky patch, rally the troops with honesty and optimism. Acknowledge the setbacks, but reframe them as opportunities to learn and grow. Share inspiring stories of your team conquering past challenges through perseverance.

Most importantly, tailor your leadership approach to each individual's needs. Someone may require more hands-on support, while others prefer autonomy. Adjust workloads, provide resources, and check in frequently to course-correct flagging motivation.

If this is a topic you want to learn more about, read our article Leading Through Hard Times: 5 Ways Managers Can Boost Performance and Morale 

Or maybe you’re managing managers and want support motivating and coaching them to better support their team? Check out our piece: Your Guide to Managing Managers: 7 Tips to Help Them Lead 

The role of resilience in team motivation

Resilience is developing the mental toughness and emotional fortitude to push through obstacles without getting derailed or losing hope.

If your team develops this, they’ll adapt and thrive amidst adversity.

To build resilience, leaders need to walk the talk. Model optimism, grit, and a solutions-focused mindset in the face of difficulties. Maintain open communication, so issues don't fester and team morale stays afloat. Remind them of past wins to rekindle their confidence.

It's also important to foster a safe, judgment-free zone for airing frustrations. Let folks vent, ask questions, and voice concerns without fear of repercussion. This vulnerability strengthens trust and cohesion.

Understanding motivation

Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘motivation’ as ‘the reason why somebody does something or behaves in a particular way’.

We often think of it when we have a big goal we want to achieve such as saving for a house deposit, hitting a new personal best in the gym, or wanting to get out of a toxic relationship. 

What motivates you can change throughout your life. In early adulthood, you may focus more on your career and education whereas in middle adulthood, you may focus more on financial security as you start a family.

Think of motivation like the initial spark of a fire. It gets things going but if you don’t tend it carefully, the fire can go out. And when motivation wanes, you need to be prepared to reignite it.

Why motivation is important

When individuals are driven and passionate about their work, it translates into heightened focus, creativity, and determination to overcome challenges. 

Highly motivated employees consistently go above and beyond, delivering exceptional results that drive business growth and success.

On the other hand, a lack of motivation can have severe consequences. 

Poor performance, decreased quality of work, missed deadlines, and a negative impact on team morale are just a few potential outcomes. In the long run, this can lead to a toxic work environment, stifled innovation, and an inability to retain top talent.

Motivation types

Remember how we said everyone is unique in what drives them? 

Well, there are also two types of motivations at the root of performance. They are:

  • extrinsic motivation
  • intrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to external factors that drive behavior, such as rewards, recognition, or fear of punishment. 

Examples include:

  • Financial Motivation: Working for monetary rewards is a classic example of extrinsic motivation.
  • Recognition Motivation: Seeking external validation and acknowledgment from others.
  • Extrinsic Motivation: Engaging in activities for tangible rewards, avoidance of negative outcomes, or external recognition.
  • Career Advancement Motivation: The pursuit of promotions and professional growth for the benefits they bring, such as higher status, more income, or increased influence, is extrinsically motivated.

While extrinsic motivators can be effective in the short term, they often need to be consistently reinforced to maintain their impact.

Intrinsic motivation

In contrast, intrinsic motivation comes from within an individual. It stems from personal satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and the inherent enjoyment of the work itself. 

Intrinsically motivated individuals are driven by their passion, values, and desire for growth and self-actualization. This type of motivation is typically more sustainable and leads to higher levels of engagement and productivity.

Examples include:

  • Achievement Motivation: While this can be driven by external accolades, the internal desire to achieve and overcome personal challenges is intrinsic.
  • Personal Growth Motivation: The pursuit of self-improvement for its own sake is intrinsically motivated.
  • Competence Motivation: The internal drive to improve, learn, and master new skills because the process is rewarding in itself.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: Activities like painting, writing, or playing an instrument for personal satisfaction illustrate intrinsic motivation in its purest form.

You should work on coaching your employees to find motivation within themselves and not rely on external drivers. This way they can be self starters rather than leaving it to you to light that fire.

So, which motivation type should you use?

Effective leaders understand the importance of catering to both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, tailoring their approach to the unique needs and desires of each team member. 

By fostering an environment that nurtures motivation from within while providing external incentives and recognition, you can pave the way for long-term success and high performance.

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