With Martin G. Moore

Episode #232

What Motivates Your People?: Revisiting a critical truth

Motivation can be pretty tricky. Trying to work out what you can do to help your people reach a state of motivation and stay there for a little while is more complicated than it sounds.

Should you try to make them happy? Should you pay them more? Should you lavish them with praise and positive feedback?

The truth about what motivates people might surprise you. Interestingly, the path to motivation isn’t an easy one, and it’s not a path that many people will tread of their own accord.

But there are some things you can do that are relatively simple, which have a high success rate. It’s just that, like all the best leadership stuff, it’s not easy, and it forces you to face the specter of not being liked. That’s enough to turn many leaders off the concept altogether!

In this episode, I look at the changing world of work, and how the challenge of motivating your people may have changed. I also give you my 5 tips for motivating your people, which is available as a free downloadable below!


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Episode #232 What Motivates Your People?: Revisiting a critical truth

Trying to work out what you can do as a leader to help your people reach a state of motivation, and stay there for a little while is more complicated than it sounds. Should you try to make them happy? Should you pay them more? Should you lavish them with praise and positive feedback?

The truth about what motivates people might surprise you. Interestingly, the path to motivation isn’t an easy one, and it’s not a path that many people would tread of their own accord.

We’ve produced a couple of episodes in the last few years about how to approach the task of motivating your people, and obviously what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. But there are some relatively simple things you can do that have a high success rate. It’s just that, like all the best leadership stuff, it’s not easy and it forces you to face the specter of not being liked. That’s enough to turn many leaders off the concept altogether.

In today’s LinkedIn Newsletter, I take a look at how the landscape has changed since I last touched on the topic of motivation. I revise some of the core concepts of motivation, and how to tap into people’s intrinsic drivers. And I give you my top 5 tips for how to nurse people through that tricky period between when action starts and motivation kicks in.


A lot’s happened since I last looked at the topic of motivation. All the way back in 2019 I released two episodes in fairly quick succession. The first was a Q&A with Em. It was Ep.30: When Money Doesn’t Motivate. And I followed that up a few weeks later with Ep.36: If Money Doesn’t Motivate, What Does?

Since then, we’ve seen the move to much more flexible working arrangements, which has brought with it an expectation that working from wherever you want, whenever you want is a right, not a privilege. There’s no doubt that a lot of things can be done productively from home (or from anywhere else for that matter).

But as leaders, you have to think more broadly than just the question of task delivery. You have to consider team performance, culture, innovation, and talent management, just to name a few. These don’t lend themselves as readily to having your people spread to the four winds.

We’ve also seen labor market upheaval. In recent times, many countries have swung towards left-leaning governments, and the clocks are being wound back on industrial relations laws, often wiping out decades of progress.

These can be incredibly restrictive when applying even the most basic leadership disciplines, like performance management. I have a number of clients who are frustrated beyond belief at the degree of difficulty in executing some relatively straightforward people decisions.

So, whereas the strict laws are good to protect individuals from unscrupulous employers, they also ‘dumb down’ the workforce by making it more difficult to differentiate between individuals. And this is a prerequisite for both individual and team performance. As we’re going to see in a minute, it’s also a prerequisite for motivation. But instead, what we’ve seen is a small but noticeable shift towards the lowest common denominator.

What else? Well, without harping on it too much, there are the well-documented trends of the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting, which are probably more notable for the mood the media hype has managed to create in people, rather than any structural shifts in the work itself.

These days, people are trying to exercise their choice to work less, but they still want to be paid the same, if not more. Which goes some way to explaining why we’re starting to see productivity declines in many Western countries.

As we look at the younger generations now entering an aging workforce, they’ve never had to work in the manner (or at the intensity) that many of us would have in the past… which is not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it seems entirely natural to them that they should have a four-day work week, carried out from wherever they choose.

Unfortunately, they’re entering a workforce where the majority of other people are likely to outwork them, and even though they may have been raised with participation trophies and 9th place medals, the reality is that these things are unlikely to pan out for them the way they expect in the real world.

All of this adds up to people being motivated by different criteria than perhaps they would’ve in the past. And of course, they’ll make decisions based on these criteria.

The interesting thing about this is that, as humans, we’re much better at working out what’s in our best short-term interest than our best long-term interest


Let’s revise some of the core concepts of motivation. In Ep.30 we answered a listener question about money as a motivator for people. To cut a long story short, money is generally a hygiene factor. It isn’t the primary motivator.

Your pay has to be good enough: it has to be fair, and it has to be market competitive, and it has to meet the requirements of the psychological contract–that’s the unwritten contract that an employer and an employee have in their heads as a yardstick for what’s fair to expect from each other.

You can actually motivate people with bonuses, if the bonus is substantial enough. But interestingly, this is unlikely to drive improved performance. So, if it doesn’t improve outcomes, you’re really only using bonuses as an employee retention strategy. Hmmmm…

As we get back to the concept of individual differentiation though, you want to pay your best people more. I found over the years that pay bands and compa ratios are entirely inadequate for this, and in most large organizations, this is all you have to work with.

You might be able to pay your top performers, say, 10 to 15% above the average for their role, but they’re not delivering 10 to 15% more than the average person: they’re delivering 100 to 150% more. And they’ll likely feel that they’re not fairly compensated for the value they bring, and that’s pretty reasonable.

Having said that money isn’t a primary motivator, don’t get me wrong–money’s really cool. It won’t make you happy per se, but it’s an enabler for making everything you do easier. And because humans are predominantly short-term thinkers, many people will make a decision based on money.

Why would I work here, when I can earn 30% more over there?” Fair enough! But the market seems to be settling just a little, so that might not be quite so much of a factor going forward.


Following up my episode on why money isn’t a primary motivator, Ep.36 explored the question further. What does motivate people? Daniel Pink published a definitive work on human motivation in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink’s conclusion–spoiler alert here–was that human motivation is driven by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Let’s start with autonomy. People want to be able to influence their environment, to exercise their power of choice, and to not be constantly told what to do: no one likes that. If you can give people a sense of autonomy, this will motivate them much more than a 3% pay rise ever could.

But this is one of the harder elements of motivation to achieve. It means you have to be able to empower people to make decisions that are appropriate for their level and responsibilities. And the interesting thing is that empowerment and accountability must travel together: they’re two sides of the same coin.

If you give people the empowerment to make decisions and do things their way, then you have to also make them accountable for the outcomes they achieve (or don’t). Likewise, if you make people accountable for delivering outcomes, they have to be empowered and have the autonomy to be captains of their destiny.

The next motivating force is mastery. People like to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with improving and becoming more capable in the things they do. A sense of pride often coincides with the gaining of mastery (not to mention the increase in expert power that gives them more cachet in the organization’s hierarchy).

The third motivating force is purpose. We produced an episode a few months ago, it was Ep.201: Finding Your Purpose, and it was actually one of my favorites from last year. In this episode I drew a clear distinction between finding your life’s purpose and finding a purpose in your life.

So as a leader, the greater you can bring a sense of purpose to your people’s work the better. It doesn’t necessarily have to align with their life’s purpose–that’s going to be different for everyone. But people need to feel that they’re doing more than just cranking the handle and picking up a paycheck.

Communicating a genuine, unambiguous purpose to rally your people around can be challenging. Why should your people bother to give their best? What’s in it for them? If you ask them to work to a higher standard, why would they (other than the fear of losing their jobs)?

Your people will be much better disposed to offer their discretionary effort if they understand a higher purpose, and their role in achieving it.

Communicating that purpose relentlessly and helping people to find individual meaning is crucial. The greatest opportunity to motivate comes when you can align your people to the core objectives of the organization, from top to bottom, with no loss of connection in between. It starts at the very top with purpose, flows through organizational strategy, into tactical and operational plans, and eventually the purpose lands with extreme clarity on someone’s desk at the front line.

How do I fit into this picture, and what do I need to do today to contribute to the organization’s success? I call this the ‘school photo’ principle: people aren’t capable of looking at the bigger picture until they can see where they fit.


Let me start with a few of the basic mechanics.

1. Hire Better People

I want to start by reiterating a key principle: there is no substitute for hiring better quality people. Remember, in terms of return for effort, your best people return tenfold the outcomes when compared to your average person. So why spend all your energy motivating people who don’t want to be motivated?

Fill your team, to the greatest extent possible, with self-starters who want to achieve and deliver. It makes a monumental difference. It reduces the amount of time and energy that you’re going to have to spend thinking about how to motivate someone. In that case, if it ain’t broke you don’t need to fix it.

2. Pay Your Best People More

If you have the flexibility, align your pay scales to individual performance to the greatest extent you possibly can. Even though we know money isn’t the primary motivator, you can give your best people a sense of appreciation and respect by ensuring they get paid more for their efforts when they go over and above. So make sure your best people feel as though their remuneration is fair.

And here’s a key mindset for you to adopt: many of your people will think they’re worth more… they may even tell you they’re worth more… but only you know if they truly are. Don’t be afraid to differentiate. Don’t be afraid to explain why you’ve made the decisions you have. And most of all, don’t be afraid to let people go if they don’t want to be there, if they feel as though they’re not getting paid enough. This is a really important mindset shift. Remember, an empty house is way better than a bad tenant.

3. Paint the “Why”

Try to make the “why”, as clear as possible. This is the purpose stuff that I’ve already mentioned. It requires communication in both an upwards and a downwards direction to make this happen well. You need to be really clear yourself on how your team’s work fits into the purpose and strategy of the company… and you’ve got to be able to communicate that, so that it’s abundantly clear to your people.

Remember, the holy grail of leadership is to connect the higher purpose of the company to the work that people do at each layer to fulfill that purpose. It’s not easy, which is why you need to be thinking about it fairly constantly.

4. Stop Doing Dumb Sh!t

Dumb sh!t falls into a few categories, but I’m talking specifically about breaking the principles of motivation that Dan Pink espouses: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We’ve just spoken about purpose, and that takes active thought and engagement as a leader. But the other two can tend to happen fairly naturally, as long as you don’t stuff it up by getting in your people’s way.

Let me just give you a quick example on autonomy. If you give someone a job to do or an outcome to deliver, then let them determine how it gets delivered. When you give someone a job to do, paint a picture of the outcome you want: functional requirements, delivery date, quality level, etc. As long as they produce the outcome (the “what”), you need to let them have a large say in the “how”.

Of course, there are going to be exceptions to this, for example, where very precise and specific processes have to be followed, which is sometimes the case.

But if you tell someone what to do and how to do it, and then hover over them, guess what you are doing? You’re micromanaging. When that happens, you rob people of their autonomy, and you’re spending time doing a job you shouldn’t be doing. You’re being paid to do your job, not theirs.

5. Bridge the Gap Between Action and Motivation

My final tip is a little more sophisticated. When it comes to motivation, we often try to motivate someone so that they’ll be moved to action. But one of life’s immutable principles is that motivation follows action, not the other way around.

Just think about your first weeks returning to the gym, or lacing up your running shoes again after an injury layoff. I guarantee that in those few days and weeks you will feel terrible. You’ll have to haul your arse out of bed in the morning, and you’ll find that getting back out there is the last thing you feel like doing. You’re not motivated in any sense of the word, but you know you can look forward to the outcomes that are going to follow.

So as the days and weeks go on, you start to see results, and it starts to feel more natural. You feel the benefits of doing what you didn’t feel like doing a week ago.

It’s exactly the same with your people at work. You can try to motivate them with a short-term sugar hit: a pay rise, more flexible working conditions, a career development carrot… there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But if you want to motivate your people in a more sustainable way, you’ll concentrate on helping them to take the actions that are necessary before the motivation kicks in.

This is why we have the Challenge, Coach, Confront Framework.

The challenge phase is where you stretch people to do something that pushes them to the edge of their experience and capability. And let’s face it, they may not like that at first. Hey, you didn’t like the alarm that woke you up to hit the gym either. But this is the door that you have to walk through if you want your people to reach a state of sustained motivation.

All self-esteem comes from doing difficult things… period! If you believe this, you’re going to be comfortable in stretching your people more.

Then the coaching phase kicks in: and this is the fun bit. It lets you help them through that ugly period between action and motivation. So stay close to them, help them to solve their problems, and to see that there’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel. Be available when they need a shoulder to cry on, and don’t let them off the hook until they get the sense of accomplishment that builds self-esteem and sustainable motivation.


Bringing this all together, let’s face it, human motivation is an incredibly complex beast, and as the world of work continues to evolve, there’s many a challenge ahead for leaders. But the fundamentals don’t tend to shift too much. Your challenge is to be confident enough to know what’s best for someone in the long-term, even when they can’t see it in the short-term.

And for that, you need to put respect before popularity. Don’t worry, your people will ultimately thank you for it.


  • Episode #30: When Money Doesn’t Motivate – Listen Here

  • Episode #36: If Money Doesn’t Motivate, What Does? Listen Here


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