The Zen of Employee Motivation

by  David Dye  |  Self Leadership

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sam)

I like simple.

When things get crazy, organizations go nuts, and life is difficult, it’s time to focus on fundamentals.

Under all the complexity of the systems you build, your employee attraction, retention, and motivation strategies, salaries, evaluations, progressive discipline, titles, promotions, job descriptions and all the other clutter we use to organize our personnel processes…

Under all of that is one simple truth:

Everyone’s a volunteer.

What About Their Paycheck?

“Wait a second, David – we pay our employees. How can you say they’re a volunteer?”

To show you what I mean, let’s do an experiment.

Hold your breath.

Go ahead…I’ll wait.


Good – how long did you make it? 30 seconds? 1 minute?  (The world record is almost 20 minutes.)

Here’s the point: there are only two things in the world you must do – breathe and eliminate waste.

You can control both for a little while, but eventually your body will force both of these things to happen.

Every other behavior is a choice.

You don’t have to eat or drink if you don’t choose to. (It’s painful and you’ll die if you do it long enough, but it’s a choice you can make.)

You can come to work and give it your best or you can show up and slack off – it’s a choice you can make.


You have a choice about how you show up every day…and so do your employees.

Everyone is a volunteer…because everyone has a choice.

You simply cannot force anyone to do anything.

Even if they don’t recognize their choice – from now on you’ll know that every day they choose whether to be there and how much effort to give.


This fundamental truth – that everyone is a volunteer – will change your leadership forever.

  • Every person on your team becomes a gift.
  • Every action they take is a freely given gift.
  • Every ounce of energy they expend on a project is a gift.

Your work as a leader shifts from force to invitation, from control to influence, from fear to gratitude.

Everyone is a volunteer.

Lead with gratitude.

Your Turn

With employee engagement rates as low as 1 in 4 and 2/3 of US employees saying they’d take a better boss over a raise in pay, employee motivation can feel complex.

Yet, the zen of employee motivation is straightforward.

Want a motivated team?

Start leading as if everyone on your team is a volunteer and the only resource you have available is influence.

(To master the essentials of influence, keep reading Lead Change and you might subscribe to my blog. You live in an age of wonders – there is more information available to help you succeed as a leader than at any time in history!)

How would “everyone is a volunteer” change your day-to-day leadership decisions or your personnel systems?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment and let us know what you think (even if it’s to radically disagree!)

Take care,


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About The Author

Articles By david-dye
I work with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done with fewer headaches.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Dale Choquette  |  25 Jun 2013  |  Reply

Great blog, so true.

David M. Dye  |  25 Jun 2013  |  Reply

Thanks, Dale – appreciate the feedback!

Ann McNeill  |  25 Jun 2013  |  Reply

Awesome post!

I have employees and interns at my firm and it is very important to keep them motivated!
Thanks for explaining it so simply and thanks for this post! :)

David M. Dye  |  25 Jun 2013  |  Reply

You’re welcome, Ann!

I’m glad this was beneficial.



Dianna Booher  |  25 Jun 2013  |  Reply

“Start leading as if everyone on your team is a volunteer and the only resource you have available is influence.”

Great advice!

David M. Dye  |  25 Jun 2013  |  Reply

Thanks, Dianna!

Sean Ford  |  29 Jun 2013  |  Reply

I would volunteer to work for you sir

David M. Dye  |  01 Jul 2013  |  Reply

Very kind, Sean – thanks!

Rick Miller  |  30 Jun 2013  |  Reply

Great concept! Not only do we have choices as leaders, but we must recognize that so does everyone on our team. An all-in attitude is what makes organizations great.

David M. Dye  |  01 Jul 2013  |  Reply

All-in – well said, Rick!

Thanks for the addition,


John Gies  |  03 Jul 2013  |  Reply

Excellent Post David,

So many times I have observed leaders (and if honest myself) being short and too quick to the point not allowing the “volunteers” to provide their input to the solution. By remembering we are all volunteers and showing real appreciation (Dale Carnegie’s rule show honest sincere appreciation) we engage our team for the longer term.

David M. Dye  |  08 Jul 2013  |  Reply


I’m with you there – I’ve definitely done that myself. Thanks for the Carnegie!

Take care,


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