Managers: It’s Not Your Job to Motivate People

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Paul Falcone and Winston Tan

You’ll be surprised to learn that engaging in “human capital turnarounds”—i.e., significant increases in your employees’ energy level as well as their productivity, focus, and output—isn’t at all impossible and isn’t even that difficult when viewed in a new light. But it will definitely take some getting used to. Changing the mindset of an entire organization needs to happen one individual, one group, one department, and one division at a time. In short, you’ll need to get your managers in the habit of trusting their employees and your employees in the habit of trusting their managers at a new level.

It’s Not the Manager’s Job to Motivate People
They say there are two kinds of employees who quit companies: Those who quit and leave versus those who quit and stay. It will always be your toughest job as a supervisor to turn around people who have long lost the motivation to make a difference and make a positive contribution to the team. Yet turning an entitlement culture into a performance culture can start with just a few simple steps.

Let’s start with one basic assumption: Your job as a manager is not to motivate your staff. Motivation is internal; people are responsible for motivating themselves, and they can’t motivate you any more than you could motivate them. Instead, as an organizational leader, you are responsible for creating an environment in which people can motivate themselves. It may sound like a subtle difference, but its implications are profound.

The weight of the world is not on your shoulders to keep your people happy, especially in light of the lurching recessions and booms that we’ve experienced back-to-back for upward of four cycles in the past 15 years. Few companies have had opportunities to promote people internally, and many have withheld equity adjustments and even annual merit pool increases because the bottom line has been squeezed so tightly. More important, there exists an underlying tension that corporate America is about to burst—once the market frees itself up, employees will scatter to the winds in hope of making up for lost time spent treading water in their careers.

Beingness versus Doingness
Good leadership is much more about beingness than doingness. We all seem to be scrambling these days to do things: How do we recognize and reward achievements? What can we do to raise the performance bar? How do we attract the best and the brightest? And with all those things that we’re constantly doing, we inadvertently create more tension and angst and miss the greater point of it all.

Now here’s where the workplace wisdom comes in. A performance-focused organization concentrates more on beingness than on doingness. It’s more concerned about who it is than what it’s doing at any given time. Think of it this way: When you think about your greatest boss and career mentor, you would typically describe that particular person as follows—He or she:

  • Listened to you and really cared about what you had to say
  • Helped you find your own solutions to questions that challenged you at the time
  • Cared about you personally and helped you plot your course for career growth and development
  • Made you feel welcome and created an inclusive group experience
  • Held you to very high standards but was fair and consistent in the application of company rules
  • At times expected more of you than you expected of yourself
  • Believed you were more capable than you thought of yourself

What’s the one thing all these descriptors have in common? They all describe your prior supervisor’s beingness—personality, approach to interpersonal communication, level of care, personal interest in your career development, and the like. And this critical message should become the norm in your organization as well. How can you, as a front-line supervisor, become that type of leader to the members of your team? How can you, as a department or a division head, create leaders in your group who can inspire their subordinates? How can you, as a CEO or HR leader, craft a culture that’s calmer, more personal and intimate, and more focused on achievements and innovative thinking?

The simple answer lies in following a basic tenet of adult learning theory: Allow adults to assume responsibility for their actions and get out of the way. The key to enlightened leadership lies in setting people up for success and then allowing them the freedom to gain traction and excel in their own personal way and individualized style. So as authors, we’re not going to tell you that there are a million and one things you need to do now to reinvent your company as a performance-driven machine. Instead, we’re going to advise you to look to the wisdom that allows you to follow a “less is more” approach to leadership, understand the value of creating a culture where workers can motivate themselves, and become a best-in-class organization that invites your people to fall in love with your company. And please note that there’s zero cost in a turnaround of this type.

© Paul Falcone and Winston Tan. All rights reserved. Adapted from The Performance Appraisal Tool Kit: Redesigning Your Performance Review Template to Drive Individual and Organizational Change, by Paul Falcone and Winston Tan, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Managers who want to gain further insight into how to bring out the best in their people should consider these AMA seminars:

Collaborative Leadership Skills

Expanding Your Influence: Understanding the Psychology of Persuasion

About the Author(s)

Paul Falcone and Winston Tan. Paul Falcone has held senior-level HR positions at organizations including Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and Time Warner. His books include 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Appraisals. Winston Tan is Managing Principal of Intandem, LLC, a management consultancy.