The Only Thing Better Than Motivating People

Taylor Scott • February 17, 2020

Of course, a big part of what makes a leader great is their ability to inspire and motivate others to become more, do more, and ultimately deliver more to help the organization achieve the desired business results. These leaders are the best motivators because they understand what actually motivates people. They’ve become masters in understanding human psychology and behavior.

Great coaches, teachers, professors, and leaders at all levels of organizations understand that positive emotions drive the decisions people make as well as the extra effort they choose to put into their work. And, the only thing better than motivating people is creating environments where people become self-motivated—which is one part art and three parts science.

The Science: Choice, Competence, and Connection

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan first introduced their self-determination theory in 1985. It has since been tested, tried, and proven over the years. The theory suggests that people become self-determined and motivated when three universal psychological needs are met:

  • The need for competence or mastery of their work
  • The need for autonomy or choice in how the work gets accomplished
  • The need for connection or relatedness and a sense of belonging with whom they work

Great leaders and motivators understand these needs for their people and teams. The mark of a great leader is less about what they can do and instead all about what they are able to motivate and inspire other people to do.

Think about the best leaders you’ve ever had. What made them great? Was it their words, their style, their actions, or was it all of the above? Chances are, it was less about what they did to actually motivate you and more about the environment they created.

The best motivators create:

  • Environments where people are given the time, space, and opportunity to master something (e.g., a new skill, their role, or a function within their role)
  • Environments where people experience a sense of choice on how to go about accomplishing their work. As people begin to feel more in control of their own behaviors, they become increasingly more self-determined.
  • Environments where people feel it’s not just okay to connect and bond with fellow teammates, but it is the expectation. Soon, the sense of belonging helps people open up and lean into giving their very best to their work or the cause.

The Art: Empathy

The best leaders create environments where self-motivation bubbles up inside of everyone on the team. However, leaders can’t create these environments until they fully understand how the people on their teams think and feel—this is where empathy comes into play. Great leaders practice, leverage, and master the art of being empathetic to find out how to create environments in which people become self-motivated. Empathy is simple: It’s the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and emotions along with the ability to feel what others feel.

Leaders who spend ample time and energy seeking to understand how their employees feel, what they want to learn, and how they prefer to work are the leaders who can create environments primed for self-motivation.

  • When leaders understand the fires burning inside each individual’s belly, they gain insight into which projects and tasks to assign to whom. Matching projects with passions does wonders for sparking self-determination inside each individual on the team.
  • When leaders understand how each person thinks about work, and, most importantly, how they prefer to accomplish the work, they’re able to give clear expectations for what needs to be done, delegate, and separate. The autonomy sparks new realms of action and productivity as their people have control over how their work is accomplished.
  • When leaders understand how each person feels to be a part of their team, they’re able to respond accordingly. For example, if they sense animosity or friction, they know it’s a great time for a team outing to build some community. If they sense that people feel stressed, they know it’s a great time to lighten the workload, encourage some time off or away from the office, or simply engage the team in some physical activity.

The only thing better than motivating people is creating environments where people become self-motivated. And, great leaders create these environments with one part art and three parts science: empathy, choice, competence, and connection.

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