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The keys to motivation (part three)


Motivating people to perform is much more than offering them a choice between a carrot or a stick.  Understanding the underlying factors can prove much more effective and yield far greater results. 

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been thinking about what it is that enables a team to perform well.  Never make the mistake of assuming people will perform just because you, as their manager, tell them to or because your organisation’s policies contain significant punishments for underperformance.  Human beings are a lot more subtle and complex than machines and if someone isn’t performing to the level needed or expected, once you’ve considered their motivation, you need to consider three factors and we’re going to look at two of them this week:


There’s nothing worse than being given a job that you can’t do.  What happens to your motivation if the task you’re being asked to do is beyond your capacity, either because you don’t know what to do or you don’t have the right skills or you don’t have the right tools?

For some people, their motivation might go up for a while – it’s a kind of “right, I’ll show ‘em” attitude, rolling your sleeves up and getting on with the job as best you can, figuring it out as you go.  But, over time, the chances are that the lack of the skill, knowledge and/or tools are going to hamper your performance and, if your performance is going down through no fault of your own, it’s difficult to stay motivated.

When we talk about ability, what we’re simply talking about is whether the individual in question is able to do the job you’re asking them to do.  Do they have the knowledge to do it – not just the how but also the why; do they understand why it matters?  Do they have the skill to do it – have they been given the right training, is the task something they are physically able to do? Do they have the right tools for the job?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, the chances are that the individual’s performance is going to drop.  Sometimes, this can be the easiest factor to correct – and the easiest to overlook.  It’s a god place to start when considering underperformance


The next factor is opportunity.  It’s all very well someone having the motivation to do the job and the tools, skills and knowledge to do it, but if they never get the chance, you won’t see the kind of performance they’re truly capable of.

This is largely concerned with the environment within which the individual works.  It might be that they get constant interruptions from something else which prevents then from doing the task.  It may be that the volume of other work they’re being given prevents them from performing at their peak.  For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to who are asked to manage projects but given no time in which to do it.  None of their existing work is taken from them to help them create space to manage the project and, in very short order, they’re sent to me for a project management course on which I’ll tell them a lot of things that they already know how to do – but don’t have the time to do them!

These issues aside, it may be that the expectations you have of them are too high or are unclear.  In these instances, the individual perhaps doesn’t know what you expect or, if they do, can’t achieve it.  How demoralising is it to know that, no matter what you do, you can’t hit an objective that’s been set for you because it’s unrealistic?  How likely are you to get good performance from that individual?

Common sense, perhaps, but definitely not common practice.  Next week, in the last of this series, we’ll look at the final factor and consider the part that you, as their manager, have to play in an individual’s performance.

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