How to keep your direct reports motivated

Image: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
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It’s a tough time to be a middle manager right now, down in the trenches daily with employees who appear ready to quit or desperate to get their old verve back. Motivation at work seems to be in short supply.

Managers may wonder, understandably, whether there’s anything they can do about it, given the state of the world. The pandemic rages on, climate change is making itself known in new regions, political and religious extremists are winning in hotspots around the world. Who can put their heart into a spreadsheet or sales call right now?

Besides, some managers may ask themselves, is it even possible for a manager to make work feel more meaningful for someone else? Doesn’t motivation have to come from within?

No, not entirely, says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who has studied motivation for 20 years. She believes that managers were in fact made for this moment. Getting the pep back in your direct reports’ proverbial step right now is a “once in a lifetime challenge,” she argues, and the social support that managers offer is critical.

“This is the time when managers make a difference, when their management skills are being tested more than ever,” she says.

The simple act of paying attention will motivate employees

Knowingly or not, Fishbach is following her own advice with such a statement. Her research has suggested that one way to motivate yourself or other people is to set ambitious—but not impossible—goals. Raising the bar, as she has subtly done for any managers reading this, makes an endeavor more intriguing and prompts people to work harder. Managers would be wise to ask the same of their direct reports.

But there may be an even easier way to support their faltering enthusiasm: simply be there for them. This isn’t to say be available online should they need to ping you, but actively check in with curiosity about how they’re doing, just as one might when working together in an office, says Fishbach.

It almost sounds too simple, but scientific studies back up the premise. Essentially, even self-motivated people feel more motivated when they are being watched. That’s because we fold the observer’s perspective into our own. The “dual perspective,” as Fishbach calls it, magnifies the task, turning it into something that feels more meaningful to invest in.

Introverts and extroverts both need attention

At the beginning of the pandemic, when people began working in isolation at home, psychological researchers like Fishbach expected to see a drop in productivity because people would no longer be around others, feeding off the energy of the group and collaborating. Instead, most people kept going on their own steam—in some cases propelled by the fear of losing their job, Fishbach suspects, but also believing the virus would pass in a few weeks. Now that the pandemic has dragged on, we’re in the middle of something (perhaps with no real end) which is also exactly when motivation tends to flag under any conditions, according to some of her past research.

“People are not good at being by themselves and working on something by themselves, or with people who don’t support what they’re doing,” says Fishbach. Parents working at home with kids in the next room may not be alone, that’s not the same as working with people who help them and notice their work, she explains, so they may as well be alone. “This is not how we evolved as a species to do work,” she says.

Your approach as a manager has to be rooted in connection, “and not only in the context of ‘Let me know what you’re doing,’ but ‘Let’s meet up and let’s discuss your life, your challenges, what are you trying to achieve right now and how can I help?’” says Fishbach.

This might involve formal, scheduled check-ins, or “5-15” structured updates once per week. Or, you might be more playful: The noted therapist Esther Perel has created playing cards with conversation prompts meant to help teams discover the range of life experiences in the group and “perhaps convince them to find purpose in their day-to-day jobs,” as she recently told Quartz’s Anne Quito. (Quartz also has gathered 56 mostly virtual ideas for socializing or blowing off steam with your workplace teams.)

Plug into your team members’ intrinsic motivations

There are scores of other hacks for nudging motivation. Fishbach has written an entire book about the complicated topic. Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation (Little, Brown Spark, 2022), due out in January, will include tips for accessing different levers that can impact a person’s innate passions and important goals. For example, in experiments, she has found that when you’re near the beginning of a project, it’s more motivating to highlight the work that’s already been done, to give people the spiritual fuel to keep going. Closer to the end of the project, however, it will be more powerful to emphasize to your direct reports what else needs to be done to hit the finish line.

She also suggests limiting extrinsic rewards—like cash bonuses or other forms of recognition that essentially gamify the workplace experience. While these can be useful as short-term motivators, they aren’t as lasting or powerful as intrinsic drivers. Using too many extra incentives can obscure the larger, more meaningful goal behind your team’s work, she says.

And while Silicon Valley has fetishized failing and the lessons it can teach a person, Fishbach’s research has shown that people are far better at learning from positive reinforcement. Cognitively and emotionally, she has explained, it’s easier to process messages about what you got right versus what you got wrong.

Ultimately, however, a manager will see the best response from a direct report if they can plug into that person’s intrinsic motivators—the things they do that feel like rewards in themselves. Find out what those things are if you don’t already know. Is it meeting clients? Is it solving difficult problems?

Employees may not be able to design their own jobs, but there may be ways to dial up tasks that don’t feel like duties and are likely connected to a person’s long-term career aspirations. Even minor modifications could pay off by unleashing more zest for the work.

The power of a virtual coffee meeting

Motivation doesn’t have to come from managers alone.

Fishbach also advises employees to set up their own rituals, like virtual coffees where people share progress updates about their work, to give attention to each other on a peer-to-peer basis.

One silver lining to the pandemic happening now, says Fishbach, is that we have technologies that allow us to connect virtually much more than before. “If the pandemic happened 10 years ago,” she says, “that would be much harder.”