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Do Managers Really Have Power Over Employee Motivation?

Have you noticed that through the years, the focus of the conversation has moved almost entirely from employee motivation to employee engagement? On the one hand, the reason could be that engagement has a broader impact and also affects motivation. But on the other, maybe we just finally figured out how hard it is to affect motivation directly.

Because let’s be honest, while you can create employee engagement, you cannot manufacture motivation. It comes from within.

In its essence, motivation is a drive to action. It is fostered by the desire to reach a particular destination. And I believe that destination is a feeling – the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we, as managers, cannot deliver this feeling to our employees directly. Nor can we ignite the fire of motivation if it is not already there. We can only add kindling to it to maintain it or prevent it from fizzling out.

What role can a manager play in employee motivation?

Get to know your team

While the feeling that motivated employees are searching for is the same – satisfaction and fulfillment, it can be brought about by vastly different things for different people.

Remember the employee who is the first to volunteer for any new task, which will teach them new skills. Or the one whose eyes light up when a massive challenge faces the team.

Then think about the person who is eager to take overtime hours. And the one team member who is always out the door at 5 pm but never leaves a task unfinished.

All these employees are motivated but by different things. The first one probably achieves the feeling of fulfillment by gaining new skills. The next one likes the challenge and the satisfaction overcoming it brings.

For the rest, the gratification may lie outside of work – buying a new car with the extra overtime money or spending more time with their family. And while the job may be just a tool to achieve their goal, they still work with motivation because they know that will bring them where they want to go.

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Now it’s evident that one size definitely does not fit all when it comes to employee motivation, and not knowing what drives each of our employees may lead to severe errors in judgment. Imagine giving overtime hours to someone who wants to spend more time with their family and sending the one who wants to make more money home at 5 pm.

As with most other people management responsibilities, we have only one tool to understand what motivates our employees – communication. We need to talk to them, build trust and get to know them. Only then can we discern what drives them.

And one more thing – we shouldn’t judge. As managers, we often value more employees who are motivated by aspects of the job or workplace than those who work to achieve goals that lie externally to the organization. But that is unfair and may lead us to inadvertently discourage some of our team members who would otherwise be motivated and driven.

Help them find what motivates them

Then there is the fact that not all our employees may know what drives them. They may have never experienced that fulfillment and satisfaction in a job setting. Or know how to go about finding it.

Or people and circumstances may change, and what used to bring satisfaction may not be so fulfilling anymore. For example, growing from an individual contributor to a manager may be a powerful motivator. But moving from a director to a senior director role might not feel that rewarding. Or maybe they just bought that dream car and don’t know what to strive for now.

In those cases, managers can help the employee find new sources of satisfaction. We can partner and explore together by offering new projects, learning opportunities or different types of recognition.

But we can only support the employee on this journey. For true motivation to be ignited, employees should find their drive themselves.

Provide them opportunities to be motivated

Now that we know what motivates our employees, things should be simple – we just give it to them. But here lies the tragedy for most managers – many of the things our employees strive for are outside our direct control.

We may not have been allocated enough budget for promotions or additional headcount to reduce workload and improve work-life balance (the story of my life). Or that project that would have provided our team opportunities to develop new skills may have been paused due to conflicting organizational priorities. Or the nature of the work may not give the employees enough autonomy and opportunity to see the results of their work.

This can be very frustrating both for the employee and the manager and may make us feel very helpless. After all, not only can we not create employee motivation, but even when it is there, we can’t seem to help maintain it.

But while not everything is in our control as managers, there are some things that are:

  • Utilize goal setting –  establishing meaningful, attainable and measurable objectives is a great way to promote employee motivation. Achieving those objectives may not elicit the same sense of satisfaction as accomplishing the employee’s significant life goals, but it will bring some incremental feeling of fulfillment, which may be enough to keep their internal drive.
  • Redesign work – sometimes, there is a lot we can do to help our employees maintain their motivation by looking into how our team does their work and finding ways to improve it. We could redesign some processes to give people more meaningful tasks. We could redistribute work to give employees who want to learn a chance to acquire new skills. Or we can put milestones in projects to evoke a sense of accomplishment at shorter intervals.
  • Provide recognition – since we were young children, we have been conditioned to crave praise. Purposeful and sincere recognition will inevitably bring about a feeling of satisfaction and is well within our control as managers.
  • Remove obstacles – removing obstacles is an essential part of our role as managers. Our job is to remove the hurdles which may prevent our employees from doing their work. But we can also make it our job to remove the obstacles that hinder their ability to feel fulfilled at the workplace. Resolving conflict, providing access to information and resources and guiding them through complex situations are just some examples of things we can do to clear our teams’ path to feeling motivated at work.

So see, there are some things that we can do to support our employees’ motivation. And we should, by all means, do them. But let’s try not to be very ambitious and not forget that employee motivation is an internal drive that we can influence but not control. It is ultimately up to our employees to find what sparks the fire in them and pursue it.

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