Why Some Motivational Strategies Fail and How to Create Inspiration at Work

Photo by Shoaib Altaf
Photo by Shoaib Altaf
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The Challenge: Organizations try to motivate employees but their strategies backfire.
The Science: Research shows that the key to motivating employees is inspiration.
The Solution: Learn three empirically-validated exercises to inspire your workplace!

For decades managers have been taught the fundamentals of team motivation:set clear goals, track progress, measure performance, and, most importantly, hold team members accountable when they aren’t carrying their weight. What they don’t know, however, is these strategies fly in the face of the latest research. In particular, they are doused with evaluation, which comes at a direct cost to what employees need to perform at their best: inspiration.

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, we live in a culture consumed with evaluation. Our espoused managerial practices are no exception. We concoct systems and processes to relentlessly measure employees’ talent, ability, and potential.  We want to know people’s performance rating, identify their potential score, and ensure they are on track against a time-bound development plan. We find ways to give upward feedback, downward feedback, and multi-rater feedback.  And in our quest to “differentiate performance,” we manufacture hair-splitting criteria to isolate any variance with surgical precision.

While these evaluative strategies are taught to millions entering the managerial ranks, they are management fare of the past. Indeed, the latest findings from neuroscience suggest that they result in far greater de-motivation than actual improvement.  Why? Because they omit a valuable piece of data: the value of emotions to spur extraordinary performance. Savvy managers honor the full range of human emotions, and use their emotional acuity like Jedi Masters. Realizing that not all emotions are created equal, they focus their time and attention on those that will yield the biggest effect on their team’s motivation.

The Critical Role of Emotions in the Workplace

How would you rate your emotional prowess? Do you know what your employees would be willing to pay for a moment of calm? How about one of happiness? To cast a scientific net on this question, consider a study conducted by Dr. Hi Po Bobo Lau and her team from the University of Hong Kong. In this experiment, subjects could choose to purchase positive emotions or avoid negative ones.   Here is how they doled out their dollars:

  • $44.30 for calm tranquility
  • $62.80 for excitement
  • $79.60 for happiness
  • $83.27 to avoid fear
  • $92.80 to avoid sadness
  • $99.81 to avoid embarrassment
  • $106.26 to avoid regret

Only one emotion was more valuable than avoiding regret: love was worth a whopping $113.55.

These dollar amounts offer a window into what emotions are true sources of motivation and which ones are detrimental joy-killers. We will avoid a boss that causes us embarrassment at all costs ($99.81 to be exact). And, while we all want to feel happy, excited, and tranquil, at the end of the day, we are social creatures that need “love.” This means we need to feel that others’ accept, value and care for us.  But if we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, are we getting enough “love” to feel motivated to perform at our best?

In most workplaces, the answer to this question is a clear-cut no.  To cultivate more of this scarce emotion in the workplace requires a seismic shift in our corporate cultures, as well as turning conventional methods of leadership development on their head.  We know that the most successful and influential leaders embody the dynamic duo of results focus and social skills.  But we also know that this type of leader is a rare species.  In fact, a recent study reports that less than 1% of leaders score high on having both analytical abilities and social skills.  Given this, how do we create a climate where both can flourish?

We—the authors—have had a lot of success in this arena. Together, we have facilitated and coached over 1,000 global leaders, employing strategies that bring this elusive theory into actionable terms. Below are a few exercises that bring these insights to life for leaders:

Practice How You Greet Your Team

How do you greet your team and colleagues throughout the day? Consider these two very different experiences we have our leaders try out. First, at the beginning of a workshop, we ask them to get to know the room by greeting others with a “New York Welcome.” Hurried, harried, and on to the next thing, they are directed to stick to the requisite info from their fellow participants—that is, name and job title.  They are quite productive in the amount of people they meet, but the quality of their connections leaves much to be desired. So, we have them redo this welcome. This time, we ask participants to greet the person as a college roommate they hadn’t seen in years. With a newfound zest, enthusiasm, and often an unabashed hug, the energy in the room is palpable. In moments, participants create the conditions for great leadership—elevated levels of trust, safety, and authentic human connection.

This Greeting Activity exemplifies what philosopher Martin Buber would call moving from an I-It to an I-Thou relationship.  As demonstrated in our “New York Welcome,” in an I-It relationship we treat the other person as an object, a means to an end, and ultimately neglect to recognize the other’s humanity.  In the “Long Lost Friend” greeting we ascend to I-Thou, where we recognize the other as more than a social role. We see them as a whole and unique human being with whom we experience mutuality, openness and ultimately genuine dialogue. The seemingly small steps that are taken to move from I-It to I-Thou have a big impact and a tremendous ROI for all involved.

Create a Power Zone for Employees

Gallup’s StrengthsFinder is an excellent tool to acknowledge and appreciate the strengths others bring to a team. However, the strengths identified revolve around work-related responsibilities. We have seen tremendous success in peeling back a few more layers. 

We do this by having leaders and teams take the VIA Character assessment. The VIA Classification includes 24 character strengths that have been found to be universal across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems and are considered the “basic building blocks” of a flourishing life. We have each leader take this assessment, and then hone their acuity for picking up on these universal character strengths in others. We call this “strength spotting,” and they practice this skill in the session. In fact, they can’t help but walk out of the session as strengths ophthalmologists, seeing the uniquely human traits their team members bring with them to work each day.

In doing so, managers are able to take the traditional development plan and put it on steroids. The reason is simple. When people can align their character strengths with their talents, interests, and resources, they operate in their personal “power zone”.  In this zone, work is inspired and inspiring, yielding high levels of engagement, satisfaction, and meaning.  Employees feel greater “love” because they are accepted for more than what they do, but also for who they are.  We ensure their inner essence is visible, and as many leaders report, the way that makes them feel is—hands down—a workplace differentiator.  If you want to try it out, participate in the free, one week strengths challenge designed by strengths guru Michelle McQuaid.

Boost Regular Feedback With Active-Constructive Responding

At the University of Washington, researchers have brought hundreds of couples into their “Love Lab” to find the secret to healthy, lasting relationships. The result is that they can predict divorce in four years with 83% to 93% accuracy by honing in on one detail in particular: how couples react to each other’s good news.

We found this same phenomenon extends to the workplace, and it is one of the best engagement tools any manager has at their disposal. Dr. Shelly Gable’s research suggests there are four ways to react to other’s good news: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.  Let’s look at all four to see why only one delivers the powerful inspiration boost you seek.

Say a co-worker recently finished a project on time, and under budget. How do you respond? If you respond in a passive destructive manner, you might simply ignore the event, assuming that it’s part of their job. If you respond in a passive constructive way, you might acknowledge the good news, but it is in a half-hearted, unassuming way. A typical passive constructive response is saying “Great work on that project” and then moving on to the next deliverable. In the third kind of response, active destructive, you might diminish the good news by saying, “This could bring a lot of exposure. Are you prepared to take on a bigger project with more responsibility?”

Finally, there’s the gem of great leadership called active constructive responding. It would sound something like this: “You were a real game-changer on that project! Congratulations! How did you manage to pull off such a huge success?  Have you celebrated with the team?” Active constructive responding helps your colleagues savor their joy and gives you an opportunity to establish a meaningful bond over the project’s success.

At this point, one might think that all the talk of the L-word, sharing, and caring scares most leaders away. In our work with leaders at all levels, and with varying degrees of skepticism, we continue to find just the opposite.  While employees may value managerial acts of love at approximately $115 a piece, the leaders we’ve trained find these strategies priceless.


This article was co-authored by Jessica Amortegui and Victoria Sevilla. Jessica and Victoria believe in the power of positive organizational cultures, not only for what they can achieve, but how they make people feel.  They work at the intersection of cutting-edge positive psychology research and pragmatic, real-world application to imagine and deliver innovative experiences that equip leaders with the mindset and skillset to build micro-climates of human flourishing. 

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Victoria Sevilla

Victoria Sevilla

Victoria Sevilla believes that the most powerful organizational cultures are built through a “connect then lead” mindset. Her love of learning and development evolved from her experience teaching at two San Francisco Bay Area universities in the College of Social Sciences. Victoria’s passion for praxis and innovation led her to consult for high tech companies in the Silicon Valley, where her L&D zeal was further fueled. She currently works in leadership development at VMware, headquartered in Palo Alto, CA, where she creates and facilitates cutting-edge experiential learning programs that take a holistic approach to empowering leaders with skills that are practical, meaningful, and motivating.
Victoria Sevilla

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