Do You Know What Motivates Your Team?

Leading a high-performing team requires understanding how to motivate individual performers. When you know what motivates your team, you can better lead them to drive results. Even better, you will be able to help them lead themselves.

Let’s start by acknowledging that most people do not know what motivates them. If you ask one of your team members what motivates them, you will probably receive a vague answer (“money”, “family”, “praise”), if any answer. One reason is because they are trying to guess what you think is the right answer. No one wants to give the boss a bad answer. The other reason is because they legitimately do not know.

Few people spend the time to consider what drives them forward each day and what they want from life. They are moving too fast to consider it. Still, it does not hurt to ask. If you really want to know what motivates someone, though, the best way to find out is through observation. Pay attention to their interactions with other people. Notice what types of situations and conversations energize them and what challenges they shy away from or reluctantly accept.

I used to lead a sales team and I found 3 primary motivators among my employees. These 3 motivators extend beyond sales, so I thought I would share them with you, as I have seen them:

1. Motivated by Greed. Some people seem motivated by money–by financial goals. They want to make all the money they can and they will do whatever it takes to have more than the person next to them. Of course, money itself is not the motivator. The motivator is what they believe money brings–status, luxury, a reputation among their peers or family. They want to feel famous in their own world.

2. Motivated by Deed. Some people are motivated by winning. Money is nice but what they really want is to be the best. They enjoy recognition of their ability and they are not only “in it to win it” but they are also driven to perform as role-models. They take intentional, conscious action to learn, and work hard to do whatever they do better than everyone else. They love to see goals in front of them almost as much as they love blowing past those goals. They want to feel proud and accomplished. They are motivated by the action of perfection itself.

3. Motivated by Need. Some people just want to do right by others. They work in alignment with a moral code. They never want to be seen as a slick “car salesman”. They have to fill a need to be in service to others, volunteering for a greater charitable calling to help their church, or the environment, or local charities. Moreover, they need the people they serve to acknowledge their nobility or fortitude. They want to help people and they feel a need to have people know how much they sacrifice. They need to feel good about themselves.


By helping a team member or friend play to their strengths and motivations, I find they compel themselves to excel. Often, this is done by simply framing a conversation to align with their motivational view-point. For example, during a sales contest, I might frame a conversation like this for each motivator:

  1. Greed: Pat, if we finish number one in this sales contest, you will have an extra $1,000 in your pocket, which will make a nice first payment on that new Lexus you want. Just throwing it out there…
  2. Deed: Chris, you owe it to yourself to finish at the top. I know you can do it. You know you can do it. You have worked and practiced for this. Now let’s show everyone else why you are the best at what you do.
  3. Need: Sam, finishing number one in this contest means you could be a hero at the shelter. What a cool gift that would be to donate, and honestly, if Pat wins it, you know that money will not go to a charity. I want to see the look on your face when you write the check. Make me proud.


The important thing, of course, is to be authentic to yourself in these conversations. If you don’t care if Pat gets the Lexus, or Chris leads by example, or Sam gives the money to a charity, then don’t pretend to be on their side. If you are not motivated by them feeling motivated, then they won’t be motivated by you. Use a different tactic.

Either way, it is good to know what energizes the people around you so you can have conversations that energize you both. Whether your thing is Greed, Deed, or Need, knowing the prime motivators will help you succeed.



What Gives You Energy?

Some things provide energy. Some things take it away. Do you know which is which, for you?


I was listening to an interview with Brad Feld, a successful entrepreneur and angel investor. He said, “You have to figure out what gives you energy and do more of the things that provide positive feedback loops to your brain.”

What an interesting and clearly obvious statement that is also challenging. I do not think I have sat down and thought about which activities or tasks, specifically, make me feel like I could keep doing them forever. I have also not put time aside to consider which activities, specifically, drain my energy and make me want to avoid them.

Off the cuff, I know philosophical discussion and big-picture problem solving are things I enjoy. Same for physical activity (aside from gym-centric exercise) like walking, bicycling, organizing, and even moving furniture lift me up even as they tire me out. The common thing I see there is things that involve exploring or meeting definite goals charge me up. Things that have endless tasks or never-ending goals (let’s lift something heavy and put it back down 50 times or great job meeting that sales goal–here’s another one that’s even harder and guess what’s waiting after that one?) pull away from my spirit.

I like feeling accomplished. I like knowing a blog post has an end and that I have reached the end of this bike trail but there is another one nearby if I want to explore more, or I can do this one again and find what I missed before.

What about you? What are the things that seem to give you more energy? What is the common theme among them? How can you use that to your advantage for the rest of your life?


Today’s Lesson: Do more of what gives you energy and say no to more of what takes away your energy.




Why We (Think We) Fail, Pt 3 of 3

Do successful people really feel motivated and inspired and have limitless energy all the time?


Do you sometimes feel like a failure? There are moments when I am not grateful for what I have or ignorant of what I have accomplished while also being envious of what I don’t have and aware of what I have not accomplished. I sat down to consider what sometimes makes me feel like I am not doing a good job living my life. I think there are three big reasons. I wrote about Comparing Yourself to Others and Defining Success in Context. Let’s explore another one:

Lost (or never found) passion. 

Follow your dreams. Do what you love. Find your passion. There are many variations of similar trite phrases and heartfelt quotes meant to inspire people to pursue lofty goals based on personal intuition and emotion. The problem with the idea of following one’s destiny is that many of us, including me, are not so passionate about a single thing we will pursue it doggedly until we find absolute success or die trying.

It has taken me nearly three decades to accept this ubiquitous advice is plain bad. It provides no tools to find your “passion”. Most people do not have a specific, concrete dream they are interested in following. For example, I love music but not as much as Prince, who devoted his life to it. I love writing but I am not as passionate about telling stories as Stephen King. I want to do more than write all the time. I love living a vegan lifestyle but not enough to devote years of my life defending animal rights or trying to bring down the entire factory farming industry. I have strong emotions about all those things and many others but there is not one that lights me up so much I wish it was the only thing I could do the rest of my life. I do not wake up and go to bed every day solely thinking about any of those things.

There are people who are passionate about a single thing and that is good for them, I guess, but I see no reason for anyone to feel bad about not having the energy, time, motivation, inspiration, or wherewithal to devote large swaths of their life to a singular, primary purpose (when there are infinite things and purposes to explore).


Today’s lesson: You do not have to chase your dreams, especially if you do not have one or if you have too many. You do not have to follow your passion, especially if you are not that passionate about anything yet. Maybe you will find your passion. Maybe you will never find something you are particularly passionate about. Either way is okay. Just make time in your life to do things you love. There is no requirement for you to become a slave to your ideas or ideals. Do not feel guilty for being anything less or more than you are willing to be in this moment.



Living An Experimental Life

I’m fond of saying something I swiped from one of my favorite thought leaders, Seth Godin: “Fail big or fail often”. I tell my team members I don’t care which one they choose, but if they are not failing then they are not pushing themselves hard enough to find their limits. They are only staying in their comfort zone and not risking anything personally or professionally to really find out who they are. Of course, I give them a safe space to fail and provide air cover when needed.

It is an important distinction, failing by reaching out of your comfort zone to find your limits, but today I want to tweak that a little. Obviously, failing, by definition, has negative connotations. I am not trying to contribute to a philosophy of failure for the sake of failure (but using the word “fail” to illustrate what success looks like does make a dramatic talking point).

Instead, what I want you to consider is embracing a life of experimenting. When we experiment, we are not playing a pass/fail game. We are trying something new, reviewing the results, and either re-assessing and trying again, or adopting, tweaking, and moving forward.

When I realized this, I realized how much I have already embraced this idea and how much of my life revolves around experiments. I think experiments are important because they help define who we are. They help us learn what we are capable of and drive us to improve. I invite you to consider what you can experiment with in your life.

Here are many (but certainly not all) of the life experiments I have tried. Some of these I continue to practice. Some I have discarded. Some I am still tweaking and practicing. I encourage you to try some of these or create your own:


  • Being vegan. I did not start animal-free and I failed at maintaining a vegan diet many times before I got it (mostly) right.
  • Waterless showering. I tried using dry shampoo and some weird astronaut soap for a week. I made it three days…
  • Fasting one day a week.
  • Eating food with absolutely no added spices for three months.
  • Turning my whole wardrobe into a two color palette (black and gray) that I could simply mix and match without giving thought to what I was going to wear each day.
  • Only shopping at local merchants, no big box stores. This was a very worthwhile one. Highly recommend.

A full year of sleep experiments, including:

  • Going to bed one minute later and waking up one minute earlier every day until it affected me mentally and physically (turns out I only need about 4 hours sleep to function normally).
  • Sleeping on the floor with no pillows.
  • Following a Circadian rhythm (sleeping about 4 hours during the day and about 4 hours at night).
  • Taking a three-week vacation and logging how much sleep I naturally provided myself when I removed all time cues. I started a stopwatch when I went to bed and stopped it when I woke up to track how many hours I slept and I removed all clocks and watches from the house, plus moved my bed into the walk-in closet so I could not use the sun as a visual time cue. Incidentally, when I am left to my schedule and free to go to bed and wake up when I please, I average about 5 hours of sleep per night (and go to bed somewhere around 3:00am) and wake up completely rested (around 8:00am).


…and much, much more. I continue to experiment with my body, with time management, even with my blog (I recently turned off commenting and date-stamping posts and started focusing on publishing to my public profile, for example). I love experiments and living an experimental life.


So today’s lesson is easy: learn about yourself or the world by trying new things, considering the results, and trying again or trying something entirely different. The idea is to learn. I hope you come up with some  great experiments of your own. Feel free to share about your experiences or ask questions on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Tumblr.

Have fun experimenting!


Today The Lesson I Learned Is: It’s My Way or the Highway… or We Can Do It Your Way, Too (140806)

I have been lucky to work with many great leaders and learned a lot from each of them. (I have worked with bad leaders, too, and learned from them.)

One thing I was reminded of today is sometimes you have to put your faith in the team captain, even when you think the play being called is wrong. Leaders do not always agree with each other. For example, I do not always agree with my boss (or maybe a particular approach by our company sometimes) but unless I think my team is being led to do something immoral, unethical, or illegal, I have to swallow pride (and intellect–I have a tendency to over-strategize) and trust someone else’s gut.

When you work with a great leader (or a leader learning to be great) it is incumbent on you to allow them room to fly or fail. You might have a different solution to a challenge (and you might be right or wrong) but when you are part of a team going for the winning play, you can not wait for just the right pass to run with the ball. Sometimes you just have to follow the leader.


Today The Lesson I Learned Is: It Hasn’t Been That Long. (140805)

Think about this…
Everything we know about the universe, every answer we have ever found proof for, every fact we learned, every skill we developed, all the knowledge of the human race… happened in the last 3,000 years or so.

Of all the people in the world, how many contribute to any one piece of that knowledge base? How many people are really working on, say, astrobiology? Quantum Mechanics? Yoga? Carpentry? How many of the 7 billion people on the planet are devoting their time to one super important thing? Very few, right?

Most of us have production jobs, families, friends, entertainment to consume, etc. It is not like you or I are trying to solve the problem of how to live on Mars or clone a heart.

All the inventions we have, the knowledge, the experience, the abilities… cars, computers, space flight, ballet, marketing, architecture, medicine… only a relative few of us are ever working on these things at a given time.

Everything we know has been accomplished by not that many people working on something for not very long.

…And you sometimes wonder if you can make a difference?


Today The Lesson I Learned Is: Run Out Of Excuses. (140804)

One of my plans today was to go for a long bike ride (bicycle, not motorcycle). By the time I caught up on my action items for the day, though, I only had 45 minutes or so left for myself. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be a very long bike ride.

I thought maybe I should skip biking and use the time to take a nap or play with the cat or look up stuff online or get a head start on tomorrow’s work. I was even going to blog instead…

After I came up with every excuse I could, I decided to go for a bike ride anyway. It was 45 minutes instead of a few hours, but it was still great exercise and I am glad I did it.

Today’s lesson is: Decide what you are going to do. Create every excuse you can think of to get out of it. Then do it anyway.


Today The Lesson I Learned Is… Why Your Company Is Broken (140721)

What would sales at your company look like if your employees had no fear of making the wrong decision? If they knew no matter what you would have their back and if they made a judgment, they were covered, even if it was a bad one? Do you suppose they would feel more confident in going after sales, or less?

How would your team’s culture be affected if you empower every employee to resolve a customer’s issue with a discretionary, no-questions-asked, $100 a week budget (or $200, or $500)? If you can solve a customer issue with less than $100, then just do it. Would that result in more or fewer customers and sales? How would your employees feel about being able to solve a problem at the drop of a hat without seeking approval, filling out and submitting a form, or calling a over-stressed department head?

What if your employees didn’t worry that their jobs are on the line if they do not sell X number of widgets, but only if they do not excel at customer retention or provide incredible training for every customer that buys a widget? Do you think that would help them sell more widgets anyway?

Have you noticed that when you raise a goal, then employees work to meet it but stop just about wherever you set the goal post? Then you raise it again and they work to meet it again (but stop just about there)? Then again, and again… Employees do not excel too far beyond goals. Wouldn’t it be great if you never had to raise goals and employees simply always do their best?

I think one reason employees do not breeze past goals is because there are goals–there is an artificial limit right there in front of them. There is a big sign that says, “If you do this, then that’s good enough for now, but don’t try too hard; we are just going to raise it again anyway.” Worse, having goals also means there are repercussions for not meeting goals.

What I have learned is that fear is intrinsic and always implied in most workplaces. It permeates the culture and gums up the wheels of success instead of greasing them. Fear is a funny thing; it works in both directions, driving you forward (like running from a bear) and driving you backward (like recoiling from a spider).

Setting a goal with either implicit or explicit pressure to reach it (whether spoken aloud or not, the “or else…” is always implied) will drive your team forward (because they don’t want to lose their jobs). It will also will drive them backward (because they know the reward for reaching the goal is only that it will be raised again and they will have to hit a higher goal–this always pays diminishing returns for them).

Companies (or teams), I think, are broken by fear. The trick is to remove the fear by removing what employees are afraid of. What if you freed them up to delight both themselves and their customers in ways never covered in the employee handbook or duties and responsibilities document? What if your company looked like the first 3 paragraphs of this post instead of the last 3 paragraphs?


The Lesson I Learned Today… 140715

If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” –Bernard Baruch (American financier and philanthropist)

Nicole decided to give up sugar for a week. I didn’t have to join her, but it sounded like an interesting experiment so I thought I would show support by giving up sugar for a week, as well. Solidarity!

Giving up something is not easy. Our lives are so full and there is so much junk and baggage all around us (emotional, spiritual, mental, and material). Whenever you give something up, you essentially try to create space, either for something else or just to have breathing room.

The funny thing is, when you create a clearing for something in life, that space is immediately filled with the excess baggage, junk, and clutter the same way clearing a space in a pond is immediately filled with water when you pluck a rock from the bottom. What fills that space is what is already surrounding the space, whatever is pressing in from all sides.

For me, only a few minutes after giving up sugar, everything looked like a lollipop! All I could think about was sugar. I wanted a Pepsi, a scoop of ice cream, a sugary latte, Cap’n Crunch, a brownie, anything!

I made it through the day, but not until I realized the problem wasn’t a desire for sugar. My problem was not protecting that clearing and letting something else fill the space instead.

This same effect happens when we try to give up anything, like smoking or alcohol, for example. When you give up smoking, all you want to do is have a cigarette. Your day is consumed by trying to rationalize why you should have just one or just a few hits or screw it–you can quit tomorrow, etc.

We struggle because we made the clearing but forgot to protect the space. We must consciously choose what goes in that space or the brain will choose the easiest solution by default–usually, whatever was there before! If that is not an option, then the alternative default setting is boredom, and our brains avoid boredom more than anything else.

Once I recognized that I was not protecting my space, especially when I was feeling bored mentally, I found other things to do. In place of my sugary thoughts, I jumped into work (there’s always plenty of that), then I left the house to meet friends, and, of course, I blogged.

It turns out sugar is not something I need. It’s just something I use to fill the space of a much worse habit: that awful boredom.

Remember, when you clear space for something in your life, you must protect the space by consciously filling it with something better (exercise, a different habit, meditation, writing, etc., whatever works better for you). Our default baggage is boredom or just going back to what was already there.

Whenever you drop a habit, be quick to put what you want there in your life and then protect that space so it can grow! If you are doing that, you’ll probably never be bored and will struggle much less.


The Lesson I Learned Today… 140711

I have been struggling with helping my team move an entirely new direction lately. I am trying to transform the way we have done things to a framework better suited for future success (the world changes constantly; we must learn to adapt or become extinct, both in business and in life). My team has been fairly resistant despite blanket agreement on the need for change and a clear understanding of the action plan.

Of course, I expect some fear of change. Change is uncomfortable. It requires us to chart new territory and that can be scary.

On the other hand, when the boss says we need to do something, then most people tend to speak compliance (“sure thing, boss!”)–that is an often unfortunate side effect of having role-power (authority granted to you based solely on your job title). Saying we agree and actually agreeing, I have learned, are two different things. People who tend to believe they are powerless to act will act in passive-aggressive ways (“Sure thing, boss, I’ll call that client first thing in the morning! (Just like I said I would but didn’t the last 3 times you asked…)”

The missing piece, I think, is not giving the person a chance to tell me why they are not on board. I did a great job explaining the why and the how, but forgot to pause as a leader, and say, “It sounds like you agree with me and we are on the same page. So now tell me what you think is in our way to making it happen.”

By offering the chance to give input, I offer my team a chance to specify the obstacles in their way and collaborate with me on taking the next step together. It also secures their buy-in. Once they have identified their obstacles and how to address them, the team is essentially putting themselves on the line for getting it done. There is not a lot of wiggle room for not meeting a result when you came up with the plan yourself and committed to achieving it.

Sharing a vision and hearing agreement is one thing. To gain real commitment, I had to bring the plan to light and let my team poke at it with a stick a few times before they trust it not to turn around and bite them.

Sometimes my team has to know they are part of creating our vision and walking toward it next to me, rather than being dragged into it behind me.