The Secret of Motivating Your People (Hint: It's Not Exactly Up to You)

by  Joe Scherrer  |  Leadership Development

Carrot and Stick

If you’ve been in a leadership position for very long, you’ve probably struggled with the challenge of motivating your people.

Perhaps you’ve tried various techniques like the carrot and stick, the inspirational speech, or annual bonuses.

Maybe you’ve even read books on motivation like Dan Pink’s Drive or perused some of the academic literature on it.

This is all well and good, but all these efforts assume one key thing: that you can actually motivate your people.

The truth is that you can’t.

Because they are the only ones that can do that.

We’re All Needy

Research by Dr. Steven Reiss, emeritus professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, says that motivation is innate. His research shows that there are 16 universal motives that impel us to action.

They are:

1.    Acceptance: the need for approval
2.    Beauty: the need for an aesthetically-appealing environment
3.    Curiosity: the need to understand
4.    Eating: strength of interest in food
5.    Expedience: the desire to take practical advantage of opportunities
6.    Family: the need to spend time with family
7.    Idealism: the need to improve society
8.    Interdependence, motivation to rely on others
9.    Order: the need to be organized
10.    Physical Activity: the need for exercise
11.    Power: the need to lead
12.    Saving: the need to collect
13.    Social Contact: the need for friends
14.    Status: the need for prestige
15.    Tranquility: the need to play it safe
16.    Vengeance: strength of competitive spirit

Each of us carries these motivations within us to different degrees.

And it’s up to each of us to act up them.

What You Need to Know About Motivation

Reiss bases his approach to motivation on several key principles:

1. Universal Motives: Certain motives are common to everyone and deeply rooted in human nature.

2. Intrinsic Motivation: For each person, intrinsic motivation is the combination of the universal motives and how much we want of them. The aggregate across all 16 motives constitutes a person’s unique “motivational signature.”

3. Relationship Compatibility: People are naturally motivated to assert their basic motives in relationships. People with similar motivational profiles usually get along better than those with divergent profiles. This can be summed up as “birds of a feather flock together.”

4. Strong Basic Desires: Strong intrinsic motivations are satisfied in multiple ways. For instance, if you have naturally hearty appetite, you will eat many different kinds of food.

5. The satisfaction of each motive produces an intrinsically valued feeling of joy. So people behave as if they are trying to maximize their experiences of their particular intrinsic motives.

5. Self-Hugging: We think our values are best, not just for us, but for everyone. Therefore, we pressure others to change their motivations to our way thinking and believe they will be better off for it.

6.  Motivational Set Point: individuals are motivated to aim for a particular level of motivational satisfaction. Any variation above or below this set point generates a corresponding reaction back toward that person’s “mean” or set point.

Intrinsic Motivation in Practice

For most people there are a few basic desires that are stronger than the rest. These are the motivators the help explain behavior. For example, some people spend their time satisfying their desire for curiosity, others seek power, while other are out for vengeance.

What actually propels motivation are the differences between the amount of an intrinsic motivator that is desired and the amount that was recently experienced.

For example, when a person experiences more power than he or she desires, the individual is motivated to be power-less for a period of time to balance toward the set point.

Conversely, when a person experiences less power than the set point, the individual is motivated to be powerful, perhaps manifested by domineering behavior for a period of time.

Implications of Motivation for Leaders

1. Remember that everyone has a unique set of motivators, their “motivational signature.” Everyone manifests their motives in a unique, individualistic way. Further, everyone prioritizes their motives in differing degrees.

2. Get to know your people’s most important motivators. That way you can work to set the conditions so that their motivational needs are satisfied. The leader’s job is to ensure that the organization’s culture provides support for ongoing satisfaction of the members’ motives.

3. Tailor your approach to take into account each person’s motivations. You can leverage the idea of motivational signatures to deliver more targeted feedback while also seeking to facilitate employee performance and job satisfaction.

4. Leverage motives to build teamwork. Since “birds of a feather” flock together, an astute leader can group together people with similar motivational profiles to facilitate teamwork. Similarly, the leader can diagnose team dysfunction by analyzing motivational compatibility.

5. Don’t be a self-hugger. Make sure you know your own motivational signature, so that you can better monitor the way you communicate with those around you. By doing so you can be more mindful of imposing your particular intrinsic motives on others. Similarly, by understanding the motives of others, you can be more sympathetic toward their point of view.

Getting Motivated About Motivation

Understanding what motivates your people in terms of the 16 universal motives is a powerful tool to have in your leadership tool kit.

Rather than trying to be the motivator for your people, instead figure out what lights their internal fire and then set the conditions for them.


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What People Are Saying

Ben Simonton  |  03 Apr 2014  |  Reply

You are right, Joe, that a boss cannot motivate employees. But the boss does have the power to create highly motivated or demotivated employees, high morale or low morale.

How? All of us are motivate by the same three things – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. If the boss gives employees all three of those at high levels, employees will become highly motivated, highly committed, fully engaged Superstars who have high morale and love to come to collaborate with other Superstars to achieve excellence every day. These people are self-managed and self-directed needing only to be pointed in the right direction, making a heaven for their executives and managers.

I have created several workforces of Superstars and the methods I used are briefly presented in this article.

Best regards, Ben
Author “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed”

Joe Scherrer  |  03 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Yes Ben, according to Gallup research, a leader is directly responsible for 30% of a follower’s engagement and indirectly responsible for around 30% to 40%. When you add the two, you realize how much influence–and responsibility–a leader has for engaged employees.

So, if your employees aren’t engaged, the first person you need to look at is in the mirror.

I think that Reiss’ approach to motivation is a natural fit for employee engagement. A leader sets the conditions for engagement by being in tune with innate employee motives. The s/he sets the conditions and builds the environment to meet those motivational needs.

Ben Simonton  |  03 Apr 2014  | 

You think that Reiss’ approach is a natural fit for employee engagement. I don’t agree because I have seen managers try it and it did not work well. Compared to my approach, it was a failure. Have you tried it? If so, what were the performance gains?

Joe Scherrer  |  03 Apr 2014  | 

Ben, I appreciate the opportunity to provide some additional insight on my experience with the Reiss Motivation Profile.

In short: it works. Several things happen:

– The overall tolerance level of the group goes up (leader and employees) because everyone has a much better understanding of individual motivations.
– The leader (if they are even marginally competent) has the wherewithal to tailor her or his approach to dealing with the group and individuals to take into account those motivational differences.
– As a result, leader-follower friction is reduced, understanding goes up, and productivity increases.
– Why? Because 1) because employees feel appreciated and 2) their motivations needs have been met.
– If you are asking me for concrete metrics, I do not have those. What I do have are the self-reports of those who have gone through the process. Which incidentally include over 40,000 individuals worldwide and hundreds of companies worldwide to include major sports teams.

In sum, this approach works. It’s grounded in solid scientific research and backed by practical field experience.

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify, Ben. I am not saying that this is the only approach to engagement. In fact, I am sure that as an expert on employee engagement that you have a process and approach that works as well.

That said, there is absolutely more than one way to skin the engagement cat.

All the Best,


Ben Simonton  |  03 Apr 2014  | 

The success that you mention is what I saw others achieve, though I consider it to be very small compared to what is possible. 40,000 successes and no improvement data. The last time I created a fully engaged workforce the measured gain across the 1300 person unionized group was >300% – we stopped measuring at that point Some managers thought we may have made another 100%.

Joe Scherrer  |  03 Apr 2014  |  Reply

That’s awesome Ben…glad there are no-kidding expert practitioners out there like you showing you how to make engagement happen. Best, Joe

Bruce Maz  |  06 Apr 2014  |  Reply

I agree w your point ..depends on how u define ” motivate your people ” .
I agree w where u r coming from ..express it a little differently ..u don’t really motivate them ,
But u do create the environment / culture where your people can and do motivate themselves .
This also includes the fact that u lead and demo self motivation yourself ! Actions always speaks
Louder than words ! ( my thoughts from experience )

Joe Scherrer  |  07 Apr 2014  | 

“Actions always speak louder than words” Couldn’t agree more Bruce.

Elke  |  04 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Thanks for a great article. I am just a bit perplexed by the comment that it is impossible for leaders to motivate. That throws a lot of research and literature out the window. I do feel leaders can motivate and inspire in an environment that is built for that, for example a value-based organization. And we have seen tons of examples in history. Maybe I am something missing here.

Joe Scherrer  |  05 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Elke–I can understand why you’re perplexed. Dr. Reiss’ approach to motivation is distinct and unique from the at least 20 theories of motivation out there. One of the reasons I started looking harder at the concept of motivation was because it got to a point where I couldn’t tell up from down. Another reason was I wanted a scientifically grounded theory that was practical and that worked in the real world. Finally, I wanted a theory that I could teach my people. Reiss’ theory was one of those that fit the bill. Best, Joe.

Anna Bernstein  |  05 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Thank you for this post, Joe. It is an excellent outline of the Reiss methodology and how to use it with leaders. I found it also made me realize how many of these ideas I use intuitively. I look forward to your next post. Sincerely, Anna Bernstein.

Joe Scherrer  |  05 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Appreciate it Anna! All the Best, Joe

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