What do you Ask When You Need Motivation?

Motivation is a tricky thing – why do we do what we do? Logically we might be able to identify what needs to be done, but that doesn’t always translate into what we WANT to do.

If you are a business owner, it’s likely that a lot of your motivation comes from building your business, supporting your team and wanting to follow the dream you had when you started the business in the first place. But your employees aren’t you – so what does it take to keep employees motivated?

Motivating Employees

Let’s get the obvious challenges out of the way. Motivation isn’t about money, except when it is. Studies have repeatedly shown that employees need to be paid ‘enough’ money and if they’re not paid at that level, then very little else is going to make much of an impact. Conversely, paying more than ‘enough’ money will have an impact on motivation (everyone likes to get paid…) but it has less and less impact as the amount goes up.

How much is ‘enough’ money? To some extent that depends on the industry and marketplace. The studies referenced above show that $70K to $80K is the point where most people are okay with what they’re making, but many industries can’t support a lot of jobs at that level, so it will likely be lower (but easier work).

And just to be clear, we’re not talking about minimum wage – there’s a lot of discussion these days on $15 minimum wages and it’s inevitable that it will it get to that point (and beyond) sooner rather than later, but it still only applies to jobs that aren’t meant to be long term career options.

If you own an ice cream shop, most of your workers will probably start at minimum wage and be capped at a few dollars above that. The business model can’t support (and doesn’t require) highly skilled, highly compensated employees. If someone on your team needs to make more money they would either move up to one of your management /supervisor positions or they move on to their next job elsewhere.

Motivating beyond money

The more challenging point is how to motivate beyond money – because that’s where the real opportunity lies. When employees aren’t worried about how much they’re making, it opens them up to a lot more possibilities. Daniel Pink did a great job of addressing this idea in his book Drive. His key point? That we’re all motivated by the opportunities for Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Which leads to some great questions to ask that will help lead you to a more motivated work-force:

Question 1 – How do you want to get this done?

As a leader, it’s your job to come up with what needs to be done (and hopefully a way to measure success), but your best bet in most cases is to leave the ‘how’ to your team. Or at least make it a joint process that you work through with them. By letting your employees do the work in the way that works best for them (but still drives to the output that you need), you’re giving them the autonomy and control that we all want.

That opportunity for autonomy drives a lot of buy-in for the overall effort, which leads to engagement and motivation. Your team isn’t doing work for you, they’re doing work that they specified – and that makes a big difference.

By the way, this idea also includes when and where. If all or some of the work can be done remotely or during off hours… and that works best for your team (and still creates the outcomes you need), then it’s in your best interests to make that happen…

Question 2 – What do you want to be when you grow up?

Okay, that’s not the question exactly… what you really want to ask and talk about is where they want to take their careers? What skills do they want to develop? What kinds of work do they get excited about doing? What kind of work feels fulfilling in terms of playing to their strengths.

Entrepreneurs and business owners are wired differently than everyone else. They want to build and create – but most employees genuinely want to just do a great job and be part of a great team. The best way to do that is to develop skills that are supported by innate strengths. That’s the idea behind mastery – it can be a very fulfilling pursuit, and if the work that needs to be done also allows for that skill development, you’ll have an engaged, motivated employee.

Question 3 – Why are they here?

Admittedly, this line of questioning can be a lot more difficult for some business owners. There are actually a couple of different components to consider here. The first one, that should be easier, is to ask how that team member fits into the bigger picture. If they don’t really understand that, it’s your job as the leader to make that clear. Not only does this help your employee feel like a valued member of a team, but it also enables them to start helping you (and the rest of the team) do things more effectively. They might recognize that something they do every day is causing problems downstream and that there is a better, easier way to do things.

The more difficult discussion is why your business exists. It’s great to be part of a team, but people also want to know what the team is trying to achieve. And it’s a good bet that they aren’t going to be excited about the answer of ‘making the owner more money…’, even if that’s the truth. However there are a lot of other great answers – sometimes it’s as simple as the team wants to win. The goal / purpose is to be the best in your industry and in your region (and ideally there’s a way to measure what being the best actually means).

Alternatively, many (some?) businesses are about more than money – they want to make an impact in their community, or they are truly serving their customers in a way that makes a positive impact (and that’s more important than the bottom line). Obviously as a business, you need to make a profit if you want to survive, but you can also be about more than that. The question / discussion to have is what that actually looks like in your world. If the answer is clear and compelling to that team member, then they’re going to be excited to come into work each day…!

What do you think? What other questions would help drive motivation for your team? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach