Leader as Motivator: Who’s Moving Whom?

Known for his Dale Carnegie training expertise, Terry Siebert is writing to inspire leaders to reach their greatest potential. Leadership, today more than ever, may mean the difference between closing the doors or opening new markets. Every month, he'll post help with mindset, business tools and more. Read Full Bio

Of all the topics in management, leadership, sales, and team training, one of the most challenging to truly grasp is the subject of motivation. Part of the reason is the lack of a fundamental understanding of the meaning of “motivation.”

“Motivation” is derived from the Latin word, motus, meaning, “to move.” The inner secret is realizing who must do the moving. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie gave valued insight when he said: “There is only one way under high heaven to get anyone to do anything. They must want to do it themselves.”

In other words, the best an effective leader can do in motivating his/her people is to take steps and create an atmosphere where people tend to be self-motivated. This requires seeing things from their perspective and certainly precludes the many manipulative methods of getting someone to follow through on a project. The ultimate goal is for a team to be committed and motivated to do their very best because they want to, not have to.

Often however, manipulation leads to compliance, and people tend to work at the least unacceptable level of performance. Following are some ideas to help break through old “motivator” habits, and foster a greater environment for self-motivated team players.

Principle 1 — A Leader’s Attitude is Vital
When he was the coach at Alabama, Bear Bryant was credited with the following statement: “When something goes really well, you (the team) deserve all the credit. When something goes fairly well, we can all share in the moment. However, if something goes wrong, we (the coaching staff) will take the blame.” Great leaders tend to give away a little bit more than their share of the credit, and take more of the blame.

Visualize this situation. There are only two seconds left in a football game and the offensive team must kick a thirty-five yard field goal to win the game. The challenge is that the field goal kicker, who normally is very consistent and highly dependable, has missed his last two attempts. What if the last words he heard from his coach were, “Don’t screw this one up like you did those last two!” Is it possible that his self-motivation, and confidence in his ability might be affected? On the other hand, what if the words were: “We’re all counting on you. Go get ’em tiger.” My guess is the attitude in the second scenario is more likely to get a positive result.

The words we use as leaders, the signals we send to our people, the attitude we demonstrate under pressure, are all part of the atmosphere in which a team is either built up or torn down. The question is: “Are you building?”

Principle 2 — People are Unique, and Therefore are Motivated Uniquely
When you think of your own organization and focus on the most effective people, there are probably some qualities that would be indicators of effectiveness. Words that we often hear are: self-starter, enthusiastic, cares about others, and goes above and beyond the call of duty. Then, when thinking of those who are least effective people, the list of qualities tends to be the opposite.

Most would agree that it is going to take a considerably different approach to arouse an eager want in group two, versus group one.

As is highlighted above, every team is made up a range of people and each one is motivated differently. The challenge for the leader is to constantly tune into team members one at a time, while building a cohesive group, focused on team objectives. One of the many traps that new managers fall in is that they think every one of their direct reports or team members is just like they are. Wrong!

Principle 3 — Build on People’s Strengths
There is an old saying that goes: “We learn from our mistakes, but grow from our successes.” I have quoted this saying many times, in front of many different business groups. After I mention the idea, I ask: “How many in the audience would say you seem to do a lot more learning, and not as much growing, as you would like in your company?” The travesty is that usually, many hands go up.

In almost every survey of motivators in the workplace, being recognized for a job well done is usually close to the top of the list. However, like the other common sense ideas above, giving praise and recognition, is not very close to the top of the common practice list. Too bad.

In summary, we can talk about principles and ideas all day. The critical factor is follow-through.

Eldridge Cleaver once said: “Either you are part of the solution or part of the problem. There is no in-between.” Which one are you a part of?

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