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How To Motivate Your Team To Work in New Ways

Photo by Lost Co on Unsplash

This article was based on episode 39 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.

What motivates you?

Motivation is an extremely complex topic. There are research studies, books and articles, podcasts and TEDTalks, all of which try to explain this phenomenon of why we act the way we do. Plus, we all have first-hand experience with motivation, or lack of it, every day.

As a manager, you are responsible for your team members accomplishing their individual and collective goals. Of course you need to motivate your team to get their work done, but you also need to motivate them to work in ways that will foster the culture that will ultimately serve the team best. This may include obvious expectations like arriving to work on time, or more complex ones such as taking more risks or always striving for excellence.

What can you do as a manager to motivate your team members–and sometimes, yourself?


In order to successfully motivate your team members, you need to other elements to be in place. These are the pre-conditions for motivation to take root and result in action.

In my experience, people will change their behavior when

  • They know what behavior is expected;

  • They have the skill, opportunity and capacity to act;

  • They understand why this behavior or expectation is important;

  • They get rewarded for doing it; and

  • They feel consequences for not.

Let’s look at each of these individually.

1. People need to know what’s expected.

Too often, as managers, we assume our expectations are shared by our team members when in fact, that’s not always the case. In Episode 1 of The Modern Manager, What It Means to Be an (Un)International Manager, I share how many managers simply don’t take the time to be explicit about the desired behaviors they want team members to embrace.

In your mind, perhaps its glaringly clear that people should show up on time, give a colleague the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong, or give feedback directly when something can be improved. But, if you haven’t been explicit about the behaviors you expect, other people may not know you expect them.

2. People need the skill, opportunity and capacity to act.

You say you want people to take ownership over their work, but what does that look like in reality? It’s not always obvious how or when to act even once the expectation is clarified.

Break down an expectation into specific behaviors or language you’d expect to see or hear.

For example, to “take ownership” means: To acknowledge when you made a mistake, ideally before it becomes a big deal; Do not blame others when something goes wrong; Speak up if you see a potential problem, don’t assume someone else will; Do what it takes to get the work done, even if it means you need to be creative, develop new processes, or do more than usual.

In addition, consider what process, systems or tools may need to be modified or developed to facilitate the new behaviors. Continuing with the “take ownership” example, you may add a section to your weekly team check-in called “owning it” and ask people to share anything they want to publicly own: A mistake they made, if they’re running behind the schedule or anything else.

The right processes, systems, and tools will enable people to succeed by ensuring they have the capability and opportunity to meet the expectations.

3. People need to know why it matters.

Unfortunately, humans don’t all respond to expectations in the same manner. For some people, just having the expectations will be enough to motivate them, but for others, it’s just the pre-requisite.

What’s different when everyone gives real-time feedback to one another? How will that make us better as a team or able to accomplish more? Why do we expect everyone to be at their desks by 9am? Why do I expect everyone to come prepared for a meeting, having read the pre-work?

In essence, why should anyone care about this expectation, especially if it goes against their natural ways of working or could cause discomfort. Few people will enthusiastically admit they rushed when sending an email to the client and sent them the wrong version attachment. More likely, they’ll blame it on a technical glitch of not saving properly or make an excuse that they sent another email that must have gotten lost in outer space. (Just saying…)

For many people, knowing why the behavior matters and the impact it will have on the individual, team and/or organization, will shift the expectation from a somewhat random demand to a compelling and desirable behavior.

But, sadly, it’s not that simple. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Four Tendencies, posits that there are four ways people respond to expectations. According to her, not all expectations are the same. How we respond to internal and external expectations impacts our motivation to act. She explains:

  • Upholders are people who excel at meeting both inner expectations and outer expectations. 

  • Questioners are people who meet inner expectations but question and struggle with outer expectations.

  • Obligers are people who do well with outside expectations but struggle with their own.

  • Rebels are people who push against both inner and outer expectations.

According to the free online quiz, I’m a Rebel, meaning I push against expectations I set for myself and those set for me by others. (Although I hadn't though of it that way before, it's totally true. It's why I love and rely on all my systems and processes to get work done.)

Rubin explains how different strategies motivate each of the four tendencies. To motivate a rebel, she says you must connect the new behavior to one of three motivating factors: their desire to be different from the crowd, their self concept, or the compelling ‘why’ which will make them choose this behavior.

Consider learning more about Gretchen Rubin’s work and the 4 Tendencies and then using the quiz with each of your team members to better understand what motivates them and how you can best align your management style to their tendency.

4. People need to be rewarded for meeting the expectation.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says we should think of motivation in general as a 2 x 2 matrix made of internal and external motivation along one axis, and positive and negative motivation along the other.

This model helps us identify what levers we might pull to reward and reinforce behaviors in line with the expectations. Are you praising, publicly and privately? Are you tapping into the person’s intrinsic motivations? For example, to encourage someone who is devoted to the team to continue to give more feedback you might say, “It’s awesome that you’ve been giving feedback so directly to your colleagues. It’s clear you really care about them and their success.”

It’s your job as the manager to find both the internal and external motivators that resonate.

5. People need consequences and accountability.

Behavior change often fails where there is no consequence to failure. New ways of working that support more effective collaboration, healthier culture, or the ability to achieve greater outcomes shouldn't be seen as ‘nice-to-haves.’

Are there natural consequences that will arise if the group fails to change behavior? How and when will you measure change? Include the new behaviors or expectations as part of the performance review, check in during one-on-ones, and follow up immediately any time a person fails to meet the expectation. Ask why they struggled (or didn’t even try) before determining any further consequence. You may discover you need to adjust a process, clarify the expectation further, or support the team member in other ways to succeed.


In addition to role-modeling the behavior yourself, you must also be prepared to reward and honor the behavior you’ve asked for. The concept “be careful what you ask for” resonates with many managers who introduce new behaviors to their team members. You say you want people to give you honest feedback, generate more creative ideas, or go above and beyond, but when they do, are you prepared to honor it?

It’s not always easy to celebrate crazy ideas when they’re nowhere near possible, or graciously accept feedback we disagree with, or praise someone for going above and beyond on one project while their other work suffers.

More likely, we fall into our own habits of criticizing outlandish ideas, becoming defensive, and pointing out all the things that they’re still doing wrong.

You need to follow through if you expect anyone else to. Show appreciation, offer praise, and execute the consequences no matter how tempting it is to backtrack.

To help you generate buy-in and motivate your colleagues to adopt new behaviors, check out the free mini-guide here or get the full guide when you join the community on Patreon

This article was based on episode 39 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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