People Don’t Leave Companies, They Leave Bosses: The Art of Motivating Your Team

How often have you heard a manager say something like this: “Jane doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as she used to be.  I don’t know what’s wrong with her.  But it’s ok because I’m doing her performance appraisal next month so I can deal with it then”? 

It’s easy to see the performance appraisal as a once-a-year opportunity to fix all the motivation issues at one go.  In a half-hour conversation, you can build your employee’s self-esteem, show your gratitude for what they’ve achieved, and promise great things for the future.  And everyone will live happily ever after, until next year’s appraisal. 

It’s not as simple as that.  A motivational conversation once a year just won’t do the job.  Motivation is like a delicate orchid – it needs attention on a regular basis, and keeping a gentle eye on it all the time in between.  

A motivated team means more success with your projects, and more money and success for the company – which in turn brings you your own motivation, and at the same time can give your career a serious boost in the right direction. 

So, what makes people feel good or bad at work?  How can we spot what’s needed? How can we respond?  Does it vary with age, gender, managerial level, culture? 

Most managers these days are well aware that money is not the only thing – nor the most important thing – that will motivate their employees.  Your employees are people – and it is the people factors that you need to focus on. 

Being recognised for having done a good job; working with positive and energetic colleagues – these are the sort of things that make people come to work enthusiastically and go the extra mile every day. 

In 1943, Abraham Maslow began his analysis of human needs, which he eventually honed into his famous pyramid of five levels. 

As long as a human being has the basic physiological needs in order to live – food, water, shelter and so on (Maslow’s “first level”) – then their needs extend upwards through the higher levels.  These are the levels which we see shaping the needs and behaviour of the people around us.  In order to reach the top level – Self-actualisation – a person’s needs pass through the middle three levels – Safety, Belonging and Esteem. 

As a manager, these are the three levels you can work with.  The first of the three, Safety, includes several elements which relate to the workplace, including job security and prospects, as well as more tangible things such as health benefits and pension schemes.  These are basically the traditional “rewards” that were considered to be the motivating factors for employees.  But recent studies on motivation of employees show that it is actually more important for managers to focus on Maslow’s other two median levels as well – Belonging and Esteem.  In the workplace these needs show up in factors such as achievement, recognition, helping others, feeling empowered, having a good working atmosphere, finding the work interesting… a long and varied list. 

As an example of survey results in this area, a recent report by Kaisen Consulting Ltd came up with some interesting results. The report was taken from the findings of a number of surveys and presents the results in a “Top 10” of “good” factors and a “Top 10” of “bad” factors.  The top three “feel good” factors were percentage-wise very clearly way ahead of the rest. They were achievement, working with others, and recognition.  Financial reward was way down at 6th on the list.  The demotivation results showed a similar trend.  

The No 1 demotivator was defined as “negative experiences with colleagues”, and No 2 was “lack of recognition”. Unsatisfactory levels of pay did not figure in the Top 10 demotivators at all. 

How can theories such as Maslow’s help us? How can we use the results of workplace surveys? 

They can help us to rethink our priorities in motivating our people.  We need to forget the money thing (or at least put it into the right perspective), and focus on the interpersonal side of things.  We need to make sure that people are working on tasks that suit their skills, tasks that stretch them enough to give them satisfaction, but not enough to overwhelm them.  We need to keep an eye on how different team members work together, and we need to consider on a regular basis what personal development opportunities we can offer our team members. 

Ultimately, everyone is interested in themselves and what’s in it for them. 

Appreciation and Feedback are key ingredients when it comes to motivation 

The most important things are the smallest - like getting people’s names right, remembering where they live and how many children they have.

Even in these enlightened days, there are still some managers who don’t think it’s necessary to give positive feedback.  “If I don’t complain, they must know they are doing things right” is an easy – I would even say lazy – way to manager your team. 

A number of years ago I asked my Personal Assistant what would make her feel good about her job.  Her reply surprised me. She said: “I want to hear you say ‘You are the best PA I’ve ever had’”.  That was all she wanted.  And she was one of the most motivated colleagues I have ever known. 

Feedback: Negative, Positive or Just Right? 

Some of us are really good at giving motivational feedback. Others are really good at giving developmental feedback. Not many seem skilled in providing both, what we call balanced feedback.

Let’s take a look at what can happen when you give feedback, either too positive or too negative. 

Too little positive feedback 

“Why should we praise people for just doing their jobs?” 

When most or all feedback is negative, people know what you don’t like, but they often have to guess at what you do like or want from them. They may feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the criticism, and they may take it personally. They don’t read your mind, and so are often confused about what you really want. 

They may lose confidence, since everything they do seems wrong. In addition, if the only time they hear from you is when you have a complaint, they may soon begin to feel defensive, or try to avoid interactions with you. 

That said, negative feedback has its place. To be effective it needs to be specific and non-judgmental. Compare these two comments on a written report:

  • “I can’t believe you turned in such shoddy work. Don’t you know any better?”
  • “One of your conclusions was not correct and I noticed there were three typos on the report.” 

The first comment is demotivating and speaks in generalities. I feel bad, but I don’t know what I should do differently. The second comment seems unemotional on purpose, so it takes the shame out of it. It also gives me specific information about what I can do to improve. 

Too much positive feedback 

If you are a big believer in positive feedback, or if you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, you may be relying too much on positive feedback and fail to deliver the bad news. 

We have all heard about employees who received glowing performance reviews right up to the day they were let go for “performance issues.” Obviously, there were problems that should have been addressed. If all you give is positive feedback, people can have an unrealistically high view of their worth and performance levels. Because they receive unbalanced feedback, they can have confidence above and beyond their actual performance levels. 

Positive reinforcement certainly has its place, and to be effective it also needs to be specific and clear. Consider these two examples:

  • “Good job. Keep it up.”
  • “Your report was clear, your conclusions were on target, and the writing was crisp and accurate.”

The first comment may make me feel good, but I am not really sure what was right about my work. In other words, the easy compliment seems general and can come across as insincere. The second comment is also positive, but it tells me what you valued, and clearly shows you read my report. 

Balanced feedback 

Balanced feedback provides feedback on what is being done well as well as what could be improved. Positive feedback builds confidence and reinforces the “good” behavior you want to see more of. It clarifies expectations. It feels good. Negative feedback is given factually and preferably with suggestions for improvement. 

Consider this example of balanced feedback:

  • “Your report was clear, your conclusions were on target, and the writing was crisp and accurate. There were several typos, and for that I suggest more careful proofing. And one of your conclusions wasn’t clear to me. Let’s talk it over this afternoon and compare notes. Overall, great job!” 

This is feedback that builds confidence, shows the direction you want the performance to take, and highlights areas for improvement in a clear, non-punishing way. 

At the same time, remember that people react differently. Some crave honest feedback, and some thrive on the “feel-good” aspects of positive feedback. So adjust accordingly – but always strive to be honest, sincere and matter-of-fact.

Prepare your feedback well and you can’t go wrong – remember the three tips:

1. Be clear about what you want to say before you say it

2. Share your feedback in a concise and specific manner, then you can flower it up if necessary.

3. Avoid generalizations 

A manager’s responsibility when it comes to keeping a team motivated is far greater than we might have thought – and we may need a far wider range of skills to succeed. 

Diana Vanbrabant is the Managing Director of ETACC: 'The European Training and Coaching Company', working with clients based in Europe, America and the UK.

Diana works together with other carefully selected trainers to deliver ETACC’s wide range of high qualitytraining courses and one-on-one coaching programmes. Her specialization is in topics such as public speaking, motivational speeches, persuasion and negotiation skills; as well as cross-cultural business skills and international leadership skills. Her programmes are delivered in English, French, German and Dutch.

 In 2011 Diana qualified as a Trait Emotional Intelligence practitioner, gaining certification from Ei World in conjunction with the London Psychometric Laboratory. Today she is coaching leaders to optimise their Emotional Intelligence at work.

As well as having trained more than 1,500 professionals in 15 different countries worldwide, Diana has coached over 100 senior managers and directors during executive one-on-one coaching sessions.

Diana has over 20 years of international experience in senior management positions in the international training divisions of multi-national corporations.

For more information on Diana, see her profile. 

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