Motivating employees isn’t about making them happy

Save the cheering for your family.
Save the cheering for your family.
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As a leader, you have probably been told that you’re in charge of motivating employees. You’ve been pitched programs and tools that will allegedly build a happy, motivated workforce, and you’ve attended seminars that teach strategies for improving morale.

These programs and tools are well-intentioned, but deliver few results. Leaders can’t motivate others, because people make their own choices about motivation, accountability, commitment, and happiness. So for leaders, it’s an impossible task to create that feeling in someone else. The expectation that leaders should keep employees engaged and happy sets them up for failure.

Instead of trying to change people, leaders should think about directing their energy in the direction that creates positive results. That means coaching teams to understand that their value at work comes from using skills and expertise to succeed in less-than-perfect realities instead of waiting for perfect circumstances. It means directing energy from “why we can’t” into “how we can.”

Here are three approaches that can help shift energy into positive results:

Seek clarity

Over-communicate what you do know and be honest about what you don’t know. Help your teams edit their stories about what is and is not occurring. Much of what we stress about is part of our story, not reality. Help your employees to put their current reality into perspective by asking helpful questions for self-reflection such as, “What do we know for sure? What’s the next best thing you could do to help?” Great leaders help their teams remove some self-imposed stress and suffering by helping them focus on what we know today and how they can contribute to the next right action.

Work with the willing

Too often during challenging times, leaders begin to lower expectations and accept less from their employees. Insist on buy-in each and every day. According to academic research I conducted, a leader often spends an extra 80 hours per year trying to win over an employee who is in a chronic state of resistance, with only a 3% chance of success. Instead, work with those already on board and start by reaffirming the employee’s commitment and willingness. Some great questions for self-reflection are, “What are you willing to commit to? How can you contribute to our goal?” A leader can call their employees to succeed in spite of challenging circumstances and encourage them to use their natural creativity to reach their goals.

Challenging times themselves aren’t demotivating for ready, willing, and highly accountable employees. They’re often an opportunity for them to get creative and use their skills. And this is where you can transform talent and productivity—by differentiating rewards. Committed, resilient and high performing employees want differentiated rewards, often in the form of challenging and purposeful work alongside other like-minded, high performing colleagues. Let their motivation be built by gaining resiliency in overcoming difficulties under the direction of a great leader who cares about them and recognizes their great achievements.

Think Inside the Box

Many leaders believe that motivation and engagement come from lack of stress or issues at work, when in fact engagement and happiness come from the level of personal accountability one takes for their circumstances. Encouraging employees to “Think Outside of the Box” can actually derail motivation levels because it comes across as “Pie in the Sky” and out of touch with reality. Redirect employee energy from “why we can’t” into to “how we can” by encouraging them to “Think Inside the Box.” The “Box” is made up of the desired goal and the constraints currently in place, such as a freeze on headcount or limited funding.  By “Thinking Inside the Box” you will generate real solutions that respect the very real constraints of current challenges.

Instead of trying to take on the impossible task of motivating and inspiring your team members, the best way to bring out the best in your people is to help them develop a healthy relationship with reality. Skills, mindsets and competencies become transferrable, and employees can find success wherever they land, which provides the ultimate foundation for the employee to build upon their own source of motivation.

Cy Wakeman is a Drama Researcher and New York Times Bestselling author. Her latest book is No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement and Deliver Big Results.