Once You Understand Emotion, Motivation is Easy

One of the most powerful theories on how to motivate people on the work-floor is Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory. In my post ‘Effective Communication Is About Understanding Emotion’ I dealt with the idea of Observational Listening and how that way of listening focuses on emotions people are currently experiencing. These two concepts together make a powerful combination in which motivation takes current emotions into account.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory states that there are three basic needs that influence job satisfaction: Mastery, connection and autonomy. If someone's job fulfills these needs, the likelihood is their current emotions will tend to be positive too. Bear in mind, though, that everyone differs in what degree these need to be fulfilled. If someone's emotions aren't that positive, chances are that one of these needs isn't being catered to sufficiently. So how to motivate your team members boils down to finding out what factors are most important for each of them and how you can connect what you want them to do for you with these needs. This way team members will do what they do because they want to, not because they have to.

Motivating on Mastery

An anxious team member may very well need attention in the realm of mastery. People seldom feel competent in an atmosphere which doesn’t feel safe. So your first task as leader is to ensure the team provides a space in which you and the team members may speak freely (this has a direct link to the need for connection too). Motivating on mastery also requires some form of feedback on how the other is doing: You need to give compliments for good work and adequate feedback when the quality doesn't meet expectations (see also my previous post ‘Why Leaders Give Feedback’). Being a good transformational leader, one who inspires his or her team members and stimulates their development, also thereby supports their team members' need for mastery.

Motivating on Connection

Although you certainly cannot control all aspects of how team members interact with one another (or with other people in the organization), you certainly have an impact when it comes to motivating on connection. Firstly by being a role model (performance is improved, for example, when the leader comes in 'up-beat' rather than irritated or lethargic). And secondly by ensuring that the atmosphere in the team is kept as positive as possible. The sad or depressive team member often finds themselves lacking in terms of the fulfillment of their need for connection. Connection isn’t just about nice small-talk. It’s also about involvement, ensuring all team members participate, for example in defining the team’s mission and agreeing on the goals to meet and challenges the team will need to overcome in the coming period.

Motivating on Autonomy

The frustrated or angry team member often feels threatened in their need for autonomy. So whilst participation in setting team goals within the boundaries of the team’s mission is essential, a form of stepped decision-making provides a next step. By stepped decision-making we mean that decisions are made at the lowest possible hierarchical level. When you tell team members what they should do, how they should feel about things or how they should think, you are limiting their feeling of autonomy. This need is best fulfilled when the team member can decide what task to do when (priority and order), how to do it (with the obvious link to mastery) and with whom to collaborate (linked again to connection). Not every work situation gives team members complete freedom in this regard. When work is more cognitive there is usually much more leeway in terms of the autonomy you can offer. So you as leader will need to see how far (and perhaps how creatively) you can provide as much room as possible for your team member's autonomy.

Back to Emotions

Motivating by taking these three needs into account is a good step forward in taking team members' current emotions into account as well as stimulating more positive emotions on the work-floor in general, with an improvement in performance as overall objective. Yet don’t jump to conclusions too soon: A team member's current emotion need not only be the result of their work environment. So remember that instead of telling, you rather go the route of asking and start taking an active interest in them as person. You will then know where their emotions stem from and thus be able to motivate on their three needs optimally!

Note: The academic version of the book Observational Listening is already available. The self-help version is expected around the end of 2017.