Fake It ‘Til You Make It: How to Motivate Your Team

Three science-backed ways to approach others to successfully encourage and inspire them.

Motivating yourself is hard enough (cue flashbacks of early morning gym sessions and late nights at the office), but finding a way to successfully motivate others is a beast of its own.

Yes, finding the motivation to hit the gym or spend your precious Friday night working on a freelance project is difficult, but the rewards reaped are so directly beneficial that it’s not impossible to find that drive.

But motivating, say, your team members at work, has a degree of separation that makes it even that much more difficult to take the time and energy to successfully encourage, support and inspire. Not to mention that motivating others is hard work. You may be able to call yourself a fat-ass (and lure yourself out of bed with an espresso) to get to an 8 a.m. spin class, but hurling insults at your co-worker and then offering them a latte likely won’t garner the same results.

That’s not to say it isn’t important. When your intern half-asses his to-do list, you’re left picking up the pieces on Friday afternoon—and working straight through happy hour. For those times when motivating someone else is crucial (like an hour of 2-for-1 specials swiftly approaching), here are some science-backed suggestions on how to do just that.

Be Genuine

“In a variety of studies, researchers have found that students who doubt their academic abilities, or question whether students with their particular backgrounds belong at their schools, frequently fall behind or fail at school—regardless of their innate intelligence or the quality of the teaching they receive,” reported The Atlantic.

And it makes sense. Self-perception plays a huge role in how motivated someone is to put effort into something. We know it all too well ourselves: when we’re feeling positive about ourselves and our goals, we’re much more likely to plow through a tough assignment at work or get to the gym and complete an early-morning spin class.

A study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that students were more motivated to take an extra step academically when they perceived their teachers’ critical feedback as a genuine desire to help. To come to this conclusion, half of the students received a bland message from their teacher saying, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The other half received a note saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.”

87 percent of white students who received the encouraging message turned in new essays, compared to 62 percent of those who got the bland note. And among African American students the difference was even greater: 72 percent in the encouraged group completed the revision, compared to only 17 percent of those who received the bland message. Plus, the revised essays received higher scores from both the teachers and outside graders hired for the study.

It’s unlikely that this ends once we trade in a school desk for one in a cubicle. When other’s perceive your feedback as genuine, it’s more likely they’ll take it constructively and use it to improve their work (versus getting defensive or discouraged and throwing in the towel).

Create an Environment Conducive to Meaningful Work

When something is meaningful to us—we’re running a marathon for an important cause or working on a project that really aligns with our own values—we’re much more motivated to commit to it.

Unfortunately, you can’t do much to make that work meaningful for someone else.

But you can do a lot to crush it.

A study published in MIT Sloan Management Review found that meaningfulness at work is intensely personal. But while bosses don’t play much of a role in fostering it, they play a huge hand in crushing it. In fact, poor management was the number one destroyer of meaningfulness in the workplace. Employees reported feelings of meaninglessness when they felt their values were disconnected from their employer’s values, they were taken for granted, given pointless work to do, treated unfairly, or isolated from co-workers.

That being said, if you’re responsible for managing people—be it one intern or a 20-person team—creating an environment that allows people to find meaning in their role is key.

Although meaningfulness is something individuals tend to find for themselves, leaders can create an “ecosystem” that enriches an employee’s experience, said Katie Bailey, co-author of the study and an employee engagement expert at the University of Sussex in the UK. For example, leaders can articulate the company’s values, then demonstrate to employees how their jobs and tasks contribute to those values or a broader purpose, reported the Boston Globe.

“This is not something managers can mandate,” noted Bailey. “Instead of saying to people, ‘Your work is totally meaningful, isn’t it?,’ create an environment where they can find that out for themselves.”

Break Goals into Smaller Steps—and Praise Each Step Along the Way

Research shows that job satisfaction plays a huge role in internal motivation. They also found that psychological rewards—like giving a recognized status, authorization in decision making and recognition of one’s effort—generate high job satisfaction.

So bridging the two becomes a smart way to boost someone’s intrinsic motivation—which inevitably takes the burden off of you to have to act as an extrinsic motivator.

“Management should introduce intrinsic motivation as many employees were found to be highly satisfied through the recognition for what they do and this will just enhance an employee to perform even better,” concluded the study.

They also found that employees weren’t jumping at the opportunity to take on challenges, often because they worried they wouldn’t be able to accomplish the unattainable goals. They concluded that the most successful route is to assign employees challenging tasks that are attainable with the opportunity to progress further.

So instead of throwing a whole project at an intern and giving them a deadline next week—break the work into smaller tasks with shorter deadlines, which will instantly make it feel more attainable. As they turn in each assignment, and receive those words of praise from you, their motivation to complete the remaining tasks will only increase.

That proposal will be submitted at 5 p.m. sharp on Friday—and you’ll be on your way to claiming your 2-for-1 special.



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