I recently saw a column in the HR Magazine (Society for Human Resource Management, June 2014) that stated the quality most desired in senior leaders is the ability to motivate others. I’ve thought often about this – how do leaders motivate others?

I recall a statement in the highly acclaimed book Leadership Pipeline (Charan, Drotter, Noel, 2001) which asserted that “contrary to popular belief, time isn’t allocated based on a boss’ directives, but on what the individual views as valuable work.” This statement has always stuck with me, and I think it’s true. I don’t think leaders can directly motivate others, but I think they can provide the conditions that allow a person to connect his/her motivations to the business need.

carrot-stick-approachMost organizations use ‘carrots’ (bonus, pay raises, title changes, or maybe time off) or ‘sticks’ (performance improvement plans, threat of termination) to motivate or encourage employees, but sometimes they ignore the intrinsic motivators, which can be more meaningful and longer lasting.

To tap into a person’s internal motivation, leaders can do the following:

  1. Be observant. One of the qualities of good leaders is the ability to be observant. Getting out of the “heads-down” task mode and identifying the kinds of situations that seem to energize someone can provide a huge amount of useful data. You can assess when and under what conditions someone seems excited, interested or motivated. Caution: you need to test your observations—don’t play psychologist and assume you know all the answers. However, listing and sharing your observations are good places to start.
  2. Ask the obvious question. Just asking your team members “What do you find motivating or most interesting about your work?” will yield great insights. I’m surprised at how rarely this simple question seems to be asked. Apparently leaders think they already have the person figured out, or assume that “what motivates me must surely motivate everyone else” or perhaps they don’t want to knowfor fear of not being able to accommodate the response. Of course, if you ask the question, be prepared to listen carefully to the response.
  3. Create the right environment. Help create an environment to allow the person to do more of what they enjoy. This can be a challenging step, because we all have to work within the practical constraints of our area(s) of responsibilities. I think creating the environment is a partnership—the leader has a responsibility to push the boundaries of what is realistic, and the individual has to communicate areas of interest and adapt to the potential opportunity – which may mean making personal changes. Creating this environment might include actions such as restructuring the work itself, changing the way in which the work is accomplished, adjusting who is involved or increasing the visibility or recognition of the work results.

Not every task that needs to be done is going to be motivational or interesting to someone. However, what I’ve found is that the more I know about what a person finds motivating, the more likely I will be able to match the business opportunities that come along to the individual’s interests and skills. I’ve found that if I can tap into the motivators first, the required skills and competence will often take care of themselves—people will find a way to develop the skill, or build the competence they need to be successful.