I've become the manager of a mid-size team within my company and my mandate is to boost productivity. Unfortunately, employees seem apathetic and content with the status quo, no matter what I do. I've tried everything – incentive plans, team-building days and every "best practice" in the book, but none seems to motivate them to put out more effort. What more can I do?
Your question is exactly the problem. Asking yourself what you can do to motivate your employees is pointless, because however hard you try, you cannot motivate anyone who sees no reason to change.
The truth is, people are motivated by their own unique self-interest. Unless your actions directly address an employee's self-interest and needs, any motivational initiatives you attempt are likely to fail. The key is to find out what each employee expects from the workplace. Most employees around the world have three "buckets" of expectations when it comes to their job:
What do they expect from their role?
Employees want to do work that fits in with their personal purpose. The role must provide adequate challenge, provide adequate freedom to do the job well and align with personal purpose and values. Meaningful work they can relate to on an emotional level is important to most high performers, and to members of Generation Y in particular.
What kind of work environment do they want?
This is about how it feels to be part of the team, and whether the work matches employees' personal values. If meritocracy is important to an employee, she will not thrive in an environment that believes in giving equal bonuses to all. If autonomy is important to another, he will not excel in a regimented environment.
What career development do they want?
Adding to one's skills and career are important to most. While choosing between jobs, candidates often pick the one that offers better prospects in terms of learning and development. Managers who have a reputation for investing the time in developing their people tend to have an easier time attracting the best talent.
Have frequent conversations
The goal is to learn as much as you possibly can about each employee's preferences in each bucket, and the only way to do that is to ask questions. Start using every opportunity during the course of a normal day or week to ask questions around role, environment and development – a five- or 10-minute conversation is often all you need.
Address their needs
Once you understand your employees' needs, motivation should come naturally if you address them. If someone needs to be challenged more, you can assign them new or special projects. Or if you know about your employee's career development interests, you can assign work that will help them build mastery in a specific area. Having developed that foundation of understanding, if they are unhappy about certain aspects of the work, they can feel comfortable discussing options and feel they are part of the process of creating change.
The bottom line
Trying to motivate employees without knowing what they want is like operating in a vacuum. So stop trying to tell them what you want and start asking what they want.
Leadership coach Rajeev Peshawaria is author of the new book Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders.