The Zen of Employee Motivation

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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