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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Sep 16, 2018

Motivation - what’s the point? And how do we motivate people as leaders? This week I outline the four factors most important for motivating people at work, and focus in on practical ideas to increase a sense of purpose.



I’ll let you in on a little secret - the truth is that, as leaders, we can’t motivate anyone to do anything - well, not directly anyway. But we can create the conditions that are likely to motivate people. In fact, I would argue that, as leaders, the majority of our impact is about setting up an environment where people are motivated about what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Leadership is about achieving results through people, and we do that through aligned motivation. It’s about aligning the things that motivate our people with the results the organisation needs to achieve. Here’s the good news - if our people are turning up to work, they are motivated. It just might be that their motivation isn’t currently aligned with we are trying to deliver.

Motivation matters, because it’s through motivation that we produce results. Motivation isn’t just about us as leaders and the organisation - it also matters because it provides meaningful and satisfying work for the people we lead.

Think about the times when you have been most motivated in your work - what was it about the organisation, your job and your leader that led to that?

Research into motivation has come a long way over the past few decades, and four factors emerge as particularly important when it comes to motivating people at work.

  1. Purpose is the first factor - people are motivated when they know the purpose of their job, and how it aligns with the purpose of the organisation.
  2. Development is the second factor - people are motivated when they feel competent at what they’re doing, and can build the capabilities that matter to them over time.
  3. Connection is the third factor - people are motivated when they have a sense of belonging - that this is this a place where they can help others, and where others help them.
  4. Autonomy is the fourth factor - people are motivated when they have freedom over their work - how they do what they do. We talked about this in an earlier podcast about control and health.

Today we’re going to focus on purpose - answering that question “what’s the point of my job and working here?” It’s a great place to start as, without a shared purpose, we don’t have a hope of achieving results through our people.

Researchers describe three levels of purpose that can be achieved through our work, each leading to an even greater level of motivation and engagement (Steger, M. F., Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2012). Measuring meaningful work: The Work and Meaning Inventory (WAMI). Journal of Career Assessment, 20, 322–337).

  1. At the first level, my work feels meaningful and has an identifiable point and purpose in an organisation. At this level I’m clear about my job and what I need to achieve, and also how this fits into the broader purpose of the organisation.
  2. At the second level, my work is in harmony with and helps provide meaning in my personal life. At this level my work becomes more than just a job - it’s something that I use to define who I am not just at work, but also in my personal life outside of work - I see the two as far more integrated.
  3. At the third and final level, my work provides the opportunity to benefit others or some greater good. At this level I feel my work has a broader contribution beyond the organisation and into society. This is where not for profit organisations are able to engage people so well, even if they can’t match the salaries offered elsewhere. But every organisation has the potential to make a positive contribution to society.

Here are three ways you can build this sense of purpose for your people:

  1. The first is the humble job description. Now I know these are boring but, stick with me, they’re also really important. It amazes me the number if times I’ve come across people who, as their first task at a new organisation, have been asked to write their own job description. That’s basically like saying “We’ve hired you, but we have no idea why”. The trap we sometimes fall into is trying to detail all the individual tasks and processes we think are required. But a job description isn’t about how to do the job. And a job description doesn’t need to be fixed - it should be a living document that grows with the individual over time. But, at a minimum, people need to be clear about the purpose of their role and what they are accountable to deliver.
  2. The second is about having a clear and robust goal setting and review process. This allows the individual to put some further detail around what they’re going to deliver, with the ability to link this to strategic goals. There are some great systems around that help people to set and track goals - PeopleGoal is one I’ve used which also helps automate the performance review process. You can find it at
  3. The third suggestion is to share the impact your organisation is having on society. Stories are really powerful here. How have people in your organisation made a real impact on the world we live in? What excites you as a leader about the impact your organisation is having?

I believe these three approaches to building purpose can make a huge difference to an individual’s motivation at work. In addition, it provides a greater chance of aligning the individual’s motivation with the needs of the organisation. And it also allows you as the leader to set clear expectations for the person to work towards.

Again, the four main things that motivate and allow people to succeed at work are purpose, development, connections and autonomy. Over the next few weeks we will continue to explore motivation in each of these four areas, with practical ideas about what we can do as leaders to engage our people in the objectives of the organisation. Next week we will be looking at development, and why helping people to build their resume actually reduces turnover. Why not invite a couple of colleagues to subscribe to the podcast so you can work through these aspects of motivation together? I look forward to speaking with you then.