I often hear clients ask ‘how do we motivate our employees’, and I always think that phrase shows we are looking at employee motivation from the wrong end of the telescope.



Why are we looking for the magic bean of motivation instead of wondering why our employees lost or didn’t have motivation in the first place? Surely that’s treating the symptom rather than the cause? Mopping up instead of fixing the leaky tap. The first mistake that I think we make is to assume employees need to be motivated. Do you think about being responsible for your life partner’s level of motivation in your relationship? Or do you consider them grown-ups and responsible for their own motivation?

Your role, as a leader, is not to instil motivation, but to avoid demotivation. It’s easy to confuse the two and there are three myths that usually drive us to address the symptom instead of the cause. Thinking that you need to instil motivation into your people suggests that they are not responsible for their motivation, or that they don’t already want to be there and aren’t already willing to try their best.

That’s classic Management X style thinking – one of the two leadership mindsets that McGregor popularised in his 1960 seminal work, The Human Side of Enterprise – the theory being that your workers need to be pushed by management.

Having made around 10,000 job offers in my previous career I can assure you that the moment someone gets a new job they are motivated. They are delighted, excited, eager to please and ready to get into it. Evidence by People Experience experts like Enboarder also shows that workers almost always start a new job highly motivated. They have good intentions and they are willing to try hard. Their evidence also shows that motivation goes downhill from there.

Another myth is that we should establish a ‘social contract’; a commonly held belief that there is an implicit and agreed value exchange in employment. Modern philosophy argues that in fact it justifies the subjugation of the weaker party – playing an important role in a traditionally unequal relationship between leader (or employer) and worker that. is shifting to a more equal footing in this decade.

The best quality relationships are not based on a transaction. Imagine explaining why you value your life partner so much by saying ‘the main reason that we work so well is. because I do the bins and you do the laundry’. It would suggest something important is. missing. And even more telling is when you have to use the contract to drive behaviours or commitments. By the time that occurs, things are not looking good – you’ve lost connection and you’ve lost trust and you are treating each other transactionally – which is hard for any relationship to come back from. So let’s leave the social contract where it belongs – in the past.

The third myth is that demotivation is a systemic or cultural issue. Well, I have some bad news. It’s not ‘the system’. According to McKinsey it’s 86 per cent you, their leader. Their research stated; “of all the misery in the world, one source lies within an organisation’s sphere of influence: the behavior of its bosses.” Hmm. Oh dear. ‘Bad bosses’ derail motivation. through the following mistakes:

Failure to delegate interesting work – sometimes, through protecting them from overwork we are guilty of keeping them in boringwork. Confucius said “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” and he’s right; teams never complain of overwork when they are doing work they love.

Being an authoritative leader – remember the social contract? It’s going out of vogue for how we manage people, as it’s fundamentally. a power-play. If it’s a habit for you, try these three simple hacks:

1. Be curious about your people, not just curious about their work.

2. Give positive feedback, not just ‘constructive’.

3. Say thank you more often.

And finally, failing to establish a psychologically safe space to operate:

1. Security is table stakes. If jobs or wellbeing are at risk, motivation is off the table.

2. Minimise threats to their status – if people. don’t know where they sit in the pecking order, it’s a derailer. You may not be able to provide organisational clarity in the middle of a restructure for example, but you can provide your perspective.

3. Minimise their sense of uncertainty. Your team need you to show them the pathway through the fog of ambiguity. Not knowing where you are going or if your work matters is a huge derailer.

4. Give them more autonomy. Only robots like being told what to do all day. Humans become hopeless if they feel that they have no power to change their situation. Encourage feedback, delegate decision making and empower change.

5. Give them time to nurture their relationships with others – the pandemic has proven that isolation is not great for well-being or culture.

6. Make sure that people are treated fairly and if there’s a perception they are not,  deal with it quickly. Once people have experienced a black mark against you on. this issue, it’s hard to shake it off.

And finally, or perhaps first: stop asking yourself how to motivate your employees and ask yourself how to stop demotivating your employees instead.



Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’ ($29.95), is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organisational, team and individual level. For more information about how Rebecca can help your team visit www.boldhr.com.au