If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get a current or potential leader’s eyes rolling in alarm, it’s the assertion that it is their responsibility to motivate and inspire their followers. Some leaders are blessed with a natural ability to inspire, but they are relatively few and far between. Others are able to motivate but not always in a positive sense - fear, unfortunately, is still used as a motivational tool by some. For the rest, the idea of motivating a group of people to produce their best is a terrifying thought – and an utterly exhausting one.

So how do you begin to approach motivation? The fallback thought for many organisations is that the thing that is most likely to concentrate people’s mind on their performance is money. The City and most sales-based organisations are built largely on this belief – the better you perform, the more money you make. The flaw in the plan, as Daniel Pink so effectively pointed out in his book Drive, is that it’s simply not the case. Pink argues that successive and compelling studies by experts in psychology and human behaviour have shown beyond doubt that paying people more to complete a task only works when the task has a simple set of rules and an obvious outcome. So, for example, if you tell a group of people to produce 100 identical widgets as quickly as possible, and that the first to complete the task will get a bonus, monetary reward works a treat.

Unfortunately, business life is not so simple. Relatively few tasks have simple rules and a beginning, a middle and an end. Business usually means making complex decisions and applying creativity – and the studies have shown that as a motivational tool for these types of tasks, money is of no use at all.

So if money doesn’t work, what does? Fortunately, this is an area where many management and leadership academics and writers generally agree. The management writer John Kotter explained it well when he said that motivation and inspiration energise people, not by pushing them in a particular direction, but by satisfying some basic human needs, such as the need for personal achievement, for recognition, self-esteem, the need to have some control over our own lives, and the chance to be part of something admirable. ‘Such feelings touch us deeply,’ said Kotter, ‘and elicit a powerful response.’

If we translate this into a business world, what we mean is that employees will be motivated to do their best if they believe in the vision set by the leader for the company, if they feel they have the resources they need to do their job and are trusted to complete it, if they are set challenging but achievable targets, and if they feel that the company and their leader cares for their welfare.

Probably the most important element of this is the vision – if people feel they are working towards achieving something great, they will put in their full efforts. We talked in an earlier column of the importance of setting the right vision for an organisation, and this is why. It’s not just about knowing where the organisation is going – the right vision acts as the best possible motivational tool for everyone involved. And the best leaders take care to ensure that everyone in the organisation, from the top managers to the receptionist, knows that they all play a vital part in achieving that vision.

If you know what to look for, it is possible to see business leaders applying the theories of motivation in practice. A good example is Sir Terry Leahy, the retired chief executive of Tesco. He frequently said that the success of a leader depends on maintaining a happy workforce and argued that a leader must provide four basic things in meeting that aim: an interesting job; the chance to improve their prospects; respect; and a leader who helps them, rather than being their biggest problem.

Sir Terry worked hard during his time at Tesco to make sure that his large workforce (of almost 500,000 at the last count), the majority in relatively low-paid jobs, had access to each element. He argued that the performance of check-out assistants, shelf-stackers and everyone else depended not on the targets that were set for them, but on how they felt about their employer. So, for example, managers were careful not to criticise but to praise employees and build their confidence. Sir Terry also introduced a shallow management structure in the organisation so, in theory, there were only six levels of management between him and a check-out assistance, which created an atmosphere where anything was possible. Sir Terry himself had worked at Tesco as a shelf-stacker as a teenager – as he would often remind his staff.

Creating a sense of collective involvement, where everyone feels that they are contributing to a greater good, is not easy and becomes far more difficult the larger the organisation. But it is possible to keep motivation levels high by following a few simple rules. One of the most important is to remember say ‘thank you’ – the single biggest drain on motivation is the feeling that you’ve done your best but have had no recognition for it. Try it for a week, and ask your managers to do the same – two simple words can make a world of difference.

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