What Great Bosses Know about True Motivation

Now, more than ever, I’m asked for tips on motivation. Managers want to know about motivating staff in the face of layoffs or salary reductions, motivating their youngest or oldest employees or motivating a new team.

Here’s the first thing to understand: bosses don’t provide motivation. They help people motivate themselves. And it takes more than a simple reward and punishment approach. That’s the message many good management scholars have written about for years, and which author Daniel Pink reinforces in his new book, “Driven: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.” He cites research into what’s called self-determination theory, which:

“…argues that we have three innate psychological needs — competence, autonomy and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity and happiness plummet.”

Come on, you might be thinking — you’re not a shrink, you’re a manager. And you’ve seen the good old carrot and stick approach work at times. Yes, at times it might, but its effectiveness is limited. That’s why great bosses have a more sophisticated tool kit. And while they aren’t psychologists, they pay attention to what makes people tick.

So, for those who want to master their understanding, here are 10 insights about true motivation (with lots of links to additional reading and resources):

  1. Fighting for fair pay for your staff is important. But do so because the absence of it is de-motivating and unjust, not because money turns people into smart self-starters. It just doesn’t work that way. Don’t confuse loyalty and morale with motivation. They may influence each other, but each has its own drivers.
  2. The most powerful motivation comes from within each person (intrinsic motivation), not from outside forces like rewards and punishments (extrinsic motivation).
  3. Competence is an intrinsic motivator. It feels good to do things we know we do well, so people gravitate toward their strengths. Bosses can fuel this with feedback that reinforces what they’re doing well and why, and by assignments that play to their strengths.
  4. Progress is an intrinsic motivator. That’s why “stretch” assignments can be great motivational tools when presented properly by managers. “This is an important project and though you’ve never tackled something this big before, I believe you can do it and I’ll have your back” can ignite a person’s internal engine.
  5. Mastery is an even greater motivator. When a person proudly becomes the go-to person on a topic or skill, their intrinsic motivation is amped up. Managers can craft training and feedback strategies for staff members to help them achieve mastery in some aspect of their work. In today’s business parlance, managers are helping employees “build their brand.”
  6. Autonomy — a sense of control and independence — fuels intrinsic motivation. That’s why great bosses don’t micromanage. They know how to convey their expectations and give people maximum latitude on how to reach those goals.
  7. Meaningful work is intrinsically motivating. Ask any volunteer for a good cause. Ask any journalist who’s covered a big story. But great bosses help people see and feel the meaning in all sorts of work, from the most mundane to the most heroic. I think this is a huge area of opportunity for bosses, who may shy away from what they think is corny conversation. But understanding and reminding people of the positive impact of their work is a powerful and motivational tool and can also improve collaboration across groups.
  8. Fear can be a motivator when it represents fear of letting others down, not fear of being screamed at. The former comes from an inner value of teamwork and collaboration, the latter from the basic human impulse to avoid pain. Managers who believe humiliation is a motivator generally motivate people to look for better managers. Great bosses deliver criticism constructively.
  9. Intrinsic motivators are augmented by other factors. Personality preferences, culture and life experiences can all contribute to what drives each person. Some prefer working in teams, others solo; some like public praise, others private; some people love industry awards, others care little about them. Here’s a Work Satisfaction Survey I developed that might help you.
  10. While there are a variety of common intrinsic motivators, every individual is different. Managers need to understand each person’s prescription for motivation. Great bosses nail this one.

Great bosses also understand the difference between motivation and manipulation. Do you? I’ll explain in today’s podcast: “What Great Bosses Know about True Motivation.”


Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunesU. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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