Motivation and Meaning

It's fine to talk about satisfying someone's emotional needs, but it's important to look a bit more closely at what you're offering your team members. That means understanding exactly what motivation does for a person. When you know that, you will have a better sense of how to approach motivating someone.

That Connected Feeling

Think of a time when you've felt motivated. You've probably felt energy, a zest for what you were doing, and a sense of connection to the task. Paradoxically, when you feel like this, it doesn't matter what you're being paid for your efforts. The feeling is enough because, at that moment, your actions are aligned with what you find important. Your actions have significance.

For all practical purposes, that is the definition of meaning — the sense of connection between what you do and something higher. When you feel motivation, what actually happens is that, for that time, you're acting with meaning. There is a reason for what you do and for your choices. The invocation of meaning is what makes motivation so powerful.

Motivation and Vision

This may sound a little familiar. That's because motivation is strongly related to vision, which was discussed in Chapter 4. Remember that when people work with vision, they put what they do into a larger context of the team and organization. They can see the reason for their tasks and so are more likely to fulfill them.

When people are motivated, they also see what they do in a larger context, but in this case, the context is what has meaning for them personally. Vision relates to the outside world of what could be. Motivation is about the inside world of what could be.

Why Motivation Often Fails

When you start realizing that motivating people means helping them act with meaning, it becomes clear why so many would-be leaders are terrible at it. They can't think about meaning because they're not interested in the people who are supposed to follow them. Instead, they operate as though they're dealing with so many interchangeable bodies that need to do work. To them, motivation is a series of tricks to get the bodies to do more.

Viewing your team as one group rather than as individual team members is one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader. When people get the sense that you are trying to manipulate them, you lose all credibility and goodwill. Even the perception of manipulation is enough to put your efforts into jeopardy.

It won't matter what these “leaders” do, nor does the amount of resources available to them make a difference. Some try to coerce people into doing as they want, which only helps ensure that those subjects of pressure will look to leave their teams as quickly as possible.

Others might try offering financial inducements to get team members to undertake a task, and that can work. In fact, there are special names for the financial inducement: payoff and bribery immediately come to mind. There's nothing inherently wrong with paying someone to get a job done. Chances are low that you'd show up to your job if no one paid you.

Have the Right Focus

However, neither coercion nor financial coaxing counts as leadership. Going back to Eisenhower's incisive definition, remember that the people on your team are not focusing on doing what you want because they want to please you. Instead, team members do things primarily for their own personal benefit.

The leader's relationship with the team is backward. To get people to focus on what you need, you have to focus on what they need, which is a connection to something greater. When you do focus on connecting them to something greater, they feel purpose and meaning, and nothing else is as compelling for most people.

Motivation is a type of sales: You are selling people into helping of their own accord. People sell best when they focus on what the customer wants and needs, not on their own goals and desires. Meeting quotas and goals comes as a byproduct from making the customer happy.

Focusing on the customer is one of the most difficult aspects of sales. A leader does need to be concerned with achieving the group goal, certainly. But to be successful in motivating someone, the leader must focus on how the goal can serve the emotional needs of the team member.

In other words, there is a time and place for everything. When you try to motivate people, you should spend your time doing just that. Success will turn into progress toward the goal because you'll have helped bring the person to the point of wanting to make the goal.

Using Motivation Correctly

With what you know about how motivation works, it's time to start considering its practical application. That happens more easily than you might think if you follow a few steps:

  • Help make connections to goals.

  • Focus on the big goal, not just the task.

  • Find a balance of motivation tools.

When you put all these principles into play, you increase the chance that others will feel motivated and you'll improve your own leadership abilities.

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