How to Really Motivate Your Employees

motivate employee

Want to know what really drives your employees to excel? Ask them.

Most managers use a variety of strategies to prompt employees to perform at their best. They offer bonuses to employee who hit certain targets, promotions, titles, even corporate perks.

Sometimes those work. At least, they work for some employees some of the time. But because they are external motivators, they aren’t always as effective as managers hope they will be. Even employees who are happy with their salaries can be disengaged from their work.

If you want motivated, loyal team members, you need to fire up their internal motivations.

“Carrots and sticks tend to guide people, but they don’t usually inspire them,” says Joshua Spodek, an executive coach based in New York. “If you want to lead, you need to work with the emotions inside of them.”

That’s a more difficult task for a leader. External motivators, after all, are easier to measure. Though research—including a recent study by Ivy Exec—shows that employees’ job satisfaction doesn’t usually come from money—it is simply easier for managers to rely on it. And many managers just don’t have the inclination, or the skills, to dig a little deeper into what drives an employee.

Employees, especially high achievers, work very hard to succeed. And in doing so, they often learn to bury their emotions or keep them private. Our true passions are closely connected to our vulnerabilities, so we learn to hide them to protect ourselves.

But here’s the rub: Leaders who guide employees by recognizing and working with the emotions and desires that really drive them will be rewarded with better performance as well as increased loyalty.

How to Uncover What Really Motivates Your Employees

Just ask. You need to start talking to your employees about their motivations and passions. Even if you ask directly, it is unlikely you will get to the core of someone’s motivations right away, as many people are not comfortable initially with talking about such personal topics with their managers. But you have to start asking. “People think they can’t say it, but if you want passion in your life, you have to say the word,” says Spodek.

Keep asking. Because most people’s answers will be vague and general at first, or pat answers that they think you want to hear or would work at a cocktail party, you have to keep asking. Spodek calls this the confirmation cycle. Repeat what your employee has said, and ask again. Often you won’t even have to ask, as when you state back what your employees responses, they will usually correct you. Why? Because they didn’t get to their own core truth, they will keep refining their answers. “When you get to someone’s core motivation, their whole demeanor will change,” says Spodek. “They will feel you understand, and that can lead to an outpouring of how much they care about something.”

Connect the passion to their task. No matter what drives your employee, find a way to link it directly to their job responsibilities. Don’t expect everyone who has a similar task to be driven by the same thing. Someone who is competitive might want to get the project in before deadline to beat other team members. Another might want to get it finished early to devote more time to another task they find more creatively fulfilling.

The result: Employees who feel emotionally connected to their work, and feel that you understand them, will work very hard. They’ll connect their satisfaction to you as well as to them. And they will want to continue to work with you and for you. Says Spodek: “They might work harder than they ever have, and they will thank you for it because it makes them feel like a better person.”

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.