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What’s my motivation?

Perhaps the most crucial skill for leaders is the ability to motivate others to follow them. There are as many ways to motivate people as there are styles of leaders. Some leaders express a compelling vision to inspire followers. Some leaders promise fame and fortune to entice followers. Some leaders evoke fear of missing targets to intimidate followers. All these techniques are effective, but which one is right?

Experienced leaders adjust their style depending on circumstances. Need to motivate your team at the start of a new project? Express a compelling vision. Need a team member to take on greater responsibility? Remind them of the growth opportunity and a potential promotion if they succeed. Need to complete work by a hard deadline? Review progress regularly, emphasizing the target.

The key for leaders to understand is that motivation goes far beyond money or any single approach. Yet leaders often fall back on a style that they find natural and effective. They use that style day to day and become known for it: the inspiring visionary, the supportive coach, the demanding authoritarian. While each style is useful in different situations, there’s a growing consensus that the best approach day to day for leading knowledge workers is the supportive coach. To understand why, you need to know a little more about how motivation works.

Eric Aside

People who study leadership styles will point out far more variations than the three mentioned here. Some of those are combinations of the three, and some are less effective and thus less interesting.

Inside out

People have studied motivation for centuries, deriving many models for it—its Wikipedia page is long. Since we’re interested in motivating our co-workers, we can assume they are fed and safe from the elements (thus meeting the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Their remaining motivations come from within themselves (intrinsic) and outside themselves (extrinsic).

Intrinsic motivations are driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. (Daniel Pink has an insightful book and TED talk about these.) Extrinsic motivations are driven by rewards (like money and prestige) and threats (like embarrassment and punishment). Both kinds of motivations vary for individuals based on their unique personalities and experiences, as well as their current environment, which is why leaders should adapt their style to the situation at hand.

Most commonly, the inspiring visionary focuses on purpose (intrinsic). The supportive coach focuses on autonomy, mastery, and rewards (intrinsic and extrinsic). The demanding authoritarian focuses on threats (extrinsic). Each method is motivating but in different ways. So, why is the supportive coach the best approach to take day to day?

Eric Aside

Managing motivation is one of the six key drivers of organizational culture and effectiveness. Read about all six and how to shape them in Culture clash.

The more you know

For folks who work on repetitive tasks, like those on an assembly line, the steps are straightforward and habituated. External pressure in the form of rewards or threats will not adversely impact their ability to work well. Instead, pressure will likely make folks work harder and faster to achieve the reward or avoid the threat.

In contrast, knowledge work done at places like Microsoft requires employees to relax, think, and innovate. External pressure increases their stress so they can’t relax, fills their minds so they can’t think, and rushes their efforts so they can’t innovate. The result is worse products with less innovation.

Demanding authoritarians can motivate knowledge workers. They’ll produce results. However, those results will deliver less value. Deadlines will be met, but at a cost. Nonetheless, authoritarians will say that nothing motivates like the threat of failure or losing a job. They’re wrong—other motivations are just as powerful, but they require leaders to develop strong positive relationships amongst team members with you as their leader.

Let it grow

One means to cultivate strong positive relationships is through supportive coaching. Knowledge work requires expertise that takes time to develop. Thus, growing people is a central part of a leader’s job. By being a supportive coach, you grow your people while also creating strong bonds that help retain the talent in which you’ve invested.

As I discuss in Staying small, leaders can also construct small teams that are encouraged to coach and support each other. This approach doesn’t replace the clarity and direction provided by leader-led coaching, but it does develop expertise, strengthen the bonds between teammates, and allow them to cover for one another during difficult times.

As we’re about to see, the strong relationships you build within your team are central to powerful motivation. Inspiring visionaries may motivate knowledge workers to pursue the vision, but without coaching, they’re likely to fall short or off-target while failing to create strong relationships. This often results in project failure or the visionary resorting to fear and intimidation.

Make me proud

As demanding authoritarians will tell you, fear of failure is a strong motivator—stronger than rewards, autonomy, mastery, or purpose (motivators found at higher levels on Maslow’s hierarchy). What can compete at the level of fear (assuming it’s not physical violence)? Feelings of belonging among your friends and close relationships.

Think of what you’d do for close friends in their time of need. What effort would you expend to make your favorite teacher or coach proud? Once basic needs are met, these feelings drive the strongest motivation. Fear is stressful and exhausting—people try to avoid and get away from it. Supporting those close to you and making them proud is exhilarating and satisfying—people are drawn even closer together into relationships that last lifetimes.

Supportive coaches grow their people, motivating them day to day with autonomy through trusted delegation, mastery through guided advancement, and rewards through increased impact. When a deadline looms ahead, supportive coaches ask their team members to rally around each other to meet the challenge. People rise to the moment not because they are scared and avoiding punishment, but because they care about their work and teammates and want to make their coach proud. The results are better products, increased growth, and greater retention, not to mention close relationships and joyful memories that transcend time.

All of us

Sometimes leaders need to motivate entire organizations, not just close-knit teams. Perhaps it’s a broad goal or security requirement. For such broad initiatives, leaders will typically rely on metrics to drive clarity, transparency, and accountability. Inspiring visionaries will describe the importance of the metric’s target value and how the world will be different when it’s reached. That message is compelling, but not so effective day to day. Demanding authoritarians will publicly single out those falling short, intimidating the rest of the organization into compliance. That’s effective, but harms innovation, product quality, and retention while creating a culture of fear instead of inclusion.

Supportive coaches take a different approach to driving broad initiatives. They’ll also use metrics and describe the importance of reaching targets. But instead of embarrassing those falling short, they celebrate those having success, encouraging them to share their knowledge. Supportive coaches will reach out to people struggling, assume they are doing their best, seek to understand their challenges, and help them achieve the shared goal. In the end, reaching the target becomes a source of great pride for the organization rather than a sigh of relief.

Are you ready?

When you combine an inspiring vision with day-to-day supportive coaching, you get what researchers call “transformational leadership.” As I discuss in The good stuff, transformational leadership paired with lean project management drives continuous delivery and makes your software team twice as likely to exceed performance goals while experiencing less burnout, less deployment pain, less rework, a clearer sense of team identity, greater trust and collaboration, and greater job satisfaction.

If your organization or project team seems driven by threats and intimidation, remind yourself and other leaders that you’re harming Microsoft’s results, people, and products. Remind leaders that there’s a better way to motivate. Establish a compelling vision at the start of the project, and then lead day to day through supportive coaching that builds strong relationships while developing autonomy and mastery that leads to greater impact, results, and rewards.

Leading daily by fostering growth and strong relationships creates teams that support one another and rally through difficult times—not out of fear, but out of love and shared pride. You’ll have a much better chance of exceeding your goals while providing your team members with a far better experience. Effective leadership is not hard. You, as a leader, just need to be a caring coach instead of a belligerent bully. Motivate those you lead from a place of trust and appreciation, and they’ll move mountains for you and each other.

Eric Aside

For more about appreciating your co-workers, read I hardly recognize you.

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