Getting the best out of your team means you must know how to effectively motivate your employees.   In this article, I discuss different ways to achieve this.

My first action as a first-time manager was to meet one-on-one with each member of my team. At the time, I was managing an entry-level sales organization. I met with one young man who then resigned three months later. One day, five years later we crossed paths in a deli where I was having lunch. He got excited when he saw me and asked to eat lunch with me, to which I said of course.

It was during that lunch that I learned how much of an impact I had on that young man in a 30-minute get-to-know-you meeting. He told me, “You changed my life.” To which I quizzically replied, “How? You worked for me for three months and left.”

He replied, “In that meeting, you asked me how much money do you want to make next year. I replied with $35,000 thinking I would blow you out of your chair. You calmly looked at me and said maybe I should consider a bigger number like $75,000. You blew me out of my chair.”

He went on to say, “I had to leave because I found a job where I could make $100,000 a year. I became a six-figure earner every year since and it was all because of you.”

What did I do? I altered his mindset by offering a different context of what was possible for him.

Types of motivation

To understand how to effectively motivate your employees you first must understand the definition of the word motivation and the types of motivation.

Motivation is the motive or reason for action. The dictionary definition “is the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.”

So how do you effectively motivate your employees? There are three well-documented methods for employee motivation: fear, incentive, and causal motivation.

1. Fear Motivation

The first is fear motivation. This is exactly what you would think. I recently returned from a safari and on one drive we encountered two lions. They were docile and had just eaten. One got up and walked straight at me. I locked eyes with him as I was trying to take his picture when all of a sudden fear kicked in and I quickly slid to my right to avoid what my mind was telling me: danger, danger.

In the workplace fear motivation looks like, do this or else… you’ll get demoted, penalized, harmed (not physically I hope) in some way or ultimately, FIRED. Employees will act out of fear of consequences they don’t want. The more difficult it is to find a replacement job, the more an employee will tolerate fear motivation.

When fear is present

When I was in the software industry, a well-branded snack company that was a client of mine moved their data centre from North Jersey (where large corporations and jobs are abundant) to Wilkes Barre, PA (a more remote location with very few professional opportunities). They didn’t change their employees’ salaries, but the employees knew they if they lost their jobs after relocating they would have to move again to find similar employment at a similar salary.

I had a meeting there with the manager and his 12 direct reports. We were in the conference room having a fun conversation, waiting for the manager to arrive. When he walked in, all the employees shut down instantly. Knowing his employees couldn’t easily get another job in the area, he managed that environment through fear and intimidation. It was so sad to see adults behave this way.

Fear motivation works until it doesn’t. It stops working when one of two things happens: the employee doesn’t fear the consequences anymore, or you burn them out, their life force energy disappears and they just give up. It is not a very effective long-term motivation strategy, especially in today’s environment, although many people still use it.

I think the reason people still use it is because it may be all they know. Having been on the receiving end of fear motivation earlier in their career, they do what they know without a thought about what other options they have.

2. Incentive Motivation

The second well-known form of motivation is incentive. It’s the carrot, not the stick. We create incentives in the workplace to motivate people to act. Sometimes it’s money and sometimes it’s other things like a close parking spot. Salespeople are motivated by money, which is why they will work hard doing a difficult job.

Incentive motivation also works, so long as I want what you are incentivizing me with. If I don’t value the incentive, it doesn’t work. I worked for a consulting company that offered incentives which for me were nothing to get excited about, so I wasn’t motivated to act.

When I was a sales leader in the software industry, in addition to being motivated by my potential commission income, I was incentivized by being offered quarterly and annual sales incentive trips for meeting certain performance goals. I earned a lot of trips including five week-long trips, where my wife and I went to Hawaii, Australia, Bali, on safari in Kenya, and Puerto Rico. I was highly motivated to earn those trips.

3. Causal Motivation

The last and probably least used and understood method for effectively motivating your employees is causal motivation, which is when people are inspired to act or work for a cause. Frequently people associate this with a non-profit that is fighting for a cause. Many companies have a vision or mission, but may not have an inspiring purpose or cause. Working for a cause or purpose is being up to something bigger than yourself. It will get you going time and time again.

As a consultant, I was fortunate to do leadership training work for a division of Hologic for four years. I was in awe of how motivated their employees were. Hologic is committed to improving women’s health worldwide. My experience was their employees were very motivated by their purpose. Many had personal stories about women in their lives who had health issues made better by the company they were working for.

Strategy drives action

Executives and strategy firms mistakenly believe strategy drives action. It does not. I know this because the only thing that drives action is mindset. In my safari example, I was motivated to move out of a mindset of fear of being attacked. The leader’s job, whether you are a front-line manager or CEO, is to create an empowering context for your employees that inspires and motivates them into action. Context is the leader’s most powerful tool for motivating employees.

For example, I was hired by an $8B chemical company to do an innovation culture assessment. The president wanted to double revenue in the next 10 years and saw innovation as their path forward. During interviews with chemical engineers, they told me they didn’t care about doubling revenue. Not surprising to me, you see they didn’t study to become chemical engineers to double revenue. If their leaders had said “We’d like to support you in coming up with the next big breakthrough in the use of plastics,” they would have said, “When can we get started?”

The most effective and sustainable form of motivation is causal or purpose motivation. This is where people are driven by something bigger than themselves which aligns with their values. The leader’s role is both to create an inspiring organizational purpose and to help each employee connect their job to that purpose.

The Boeing manager

A Boeing manager, a participant in one of my training programs, shared how he trains new janitors on the manufacturing floor. He explains to them that their job help the company sell aeroplanes. He informs them that when Boeing takes customers on tours of the manufacturing facilities, cleanliness on the production floors communicates attention to detail in everything Boeing does, from engineering to production. Boeing janitors don’t take out the trash, they help sell aeroplanes.

You may say, but Alan you failed as a manager because, in your first story, the employee left and never produced for you. While that is true, my style of management and motivation led to pretty impressive results. In my first year on the job, my team achieved 92% of the quota while I managed through 50% of employee turnover. Each of the next four years we exceeded quota by 120% or more, with one year being over 176%. And remember those five incentive trips, I earned each of them as a manager. I must have been doing something right.

Being a great leader and motivator is not manipulation. I hope you can see that both fear and incentive motivation are manipulative, one negative, the other positive. Being able to effectively motivate you’re employees is about helping them connect to a purpose bigger than themselves and being inspired to do the work necessary to meet the purpose. The first step in this process is to make sure you are motivated by a purpose or cause bigger than yourself. You cannot effectively lead and motivate others if you are not motivated yourself.

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Alan has over 30 years of sales, management, leadership, and consulting experience. He has worked with Fortune 500 companies, middle market companies, and small entrepreneurial firms and owned his own businesses. In his career, Alan created a licensing concept that generated $250 million in revenue and led sales teams that exceeded quotas by as much as 176 per cent. In one engagement, Alan developed and led a custom executive leadership program for forty-five Oracle sales vice presidents. He also delivered leadership training for more than 1,800 first-level leaders at Boeing. Alan’s approaches and philosophies toward management and leadership are based on ontology and axiology. He is also a certified behavioural analyst. Alan offers executive coaching, strategic consulting, executive team coaching, and CEO advising; his website is