5 Ways To Motivate Your Team…Backed By Science

Business Motivation
Use this insight to get your team motivated to achieve its goal.

In a recent study, 87% of companies said that said that culture and employee engagement where top challenges. 50% of those said that it was a very important challenge.

It’s a weird thing, but I’ve seen it happen in business settings. I’ve had managers who have had the feeling: It’s the person’s job? What other motivation do they need?

And that comes across as callous and insincere, but I get it. I’ve felt that way on occasion. Business managers, entrepreneurs and others are under pressure for the business to perform. They’re being pulled in many different directions and they don’t always have time for something like employee motivation.

That’s especially true when you feel like it should take care of itself. The feeling that you’re being paid for a job so you should do it should be enough. But it’s just not the way it works in a lot of cases.

The saying is that money talks and BS walks. But over and over in our lives we see that it takes more than money to motivate ourselves and others. I don’t know why it is that way. It seems like maybe the initial allure of money can work in the short-term, but once we have it the motivation can wane.

You’ll see it all the time in pro sports. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the Green Bay Packers play and see a player that looks like he’s not trying. The feeling of Do your job! overcomes me. How can they not be motivated while making hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more)? But it happens in every corner of the world and it really shows how difficult the leader’s job is.

So it takes more, but what?

Here are some ways to motivate your team…backed by science.

1. Autonomy

It seems that people are born with a will for freedom. We don’t like to feel that we’re being controlled by anyone or anything. It can drive you crazy if you’re in a situation where you feel controlled more than you feel you should be.

That’s obviously tricky in a business setting for a leader because successful businesses often require systems, processes and procedures to be effective. This means that employees need to be controlled, in a sense, to follow those systems.

But studies have found that people are more motivated when they feel a sense of autonomy. There was even a study done in rural China that tested children and their motivation for learning. Those that were given a sense of more autonomy were more motivated than those that felt controlled.

As a leader, it’s your task to offer more choice and freedom to employees. Obviously you still have to keep things within your systems, but look for areas where employees can make choices. Maybe you can be lax on the strict 40-hour per week setup.

Even little choices can help to improve the sense of freedom. Find ways to incorporate choice in your systems. This can keep things working smoothly while keeping employees motivated through a sense of freedom.

2. Embrace Envy

Envy? That’s right, envy can be a powerful motivator, but you have tread carefully with this one because doing it the wrong way can get things going bad in a hurry.

Envy can elicit bad feelings between people. It can lead to the feeling that you need to destroy the object of your affection or envy.

Obviously you don’t want that in the workplace.

But studies have found that two aspects of envy can work really well as motivation.

The first is called benign envy. It’s looking at another person’s success as being earned. When we look at someone that has accomplished something we can feel envy, but if we feel that what they have is deserved we feel an envy that can motivated us to reach the same level of success and that’s the second aspect of envy as motivation.

Second, the level of success in the other person needs to be seen as achievable. It’s looking at a person and thinking that if they could do it, I can too. If the level of success appears too far off then it’s not a destruction type of envy, but we don’t feel the motivation to work and reach the level of success.

In your company, look for ways to get team members to embrace envy. Look for a case study of someone that started where they are and achieved success through hard work. If you find the team looking envious than you might be hitting on the right mindset for motivation.

I look at an NFL team as an example. A bad team could see a team win the Super Bowl. If the players feel that the team only won because they have the best quarterback in the league they likely won’t be motivated. But if they feel that everyone on the team worked their tails off to win then they will see that they can do it too.

3. “Don’t Take It Away!”

The fear of losing something is more powerful than the idea of gaining something more.

There have been studies on this reality in golf. The best golfers are more focused when they fear losing par, which is the expected score on any hole. For example, if they are playing a par 4, a hole where four shots are expected to hole out, they are more likely to focus hard on a 10 foot par putt than on the same putt for a 3.

This motivation can be tricky in the business world. I don’t think it’s a good idea to establish fear in people so that they’re always working on pins and needles. That likely won’t lead to positive results.

But you can work little loss fears into your team members. You could start with a bonus pool of money, for example, of say $120,000 for the team. Each month they don’t hit their goals, $10,000 is removed from the pot.

It appears that this method would be much more effective than offering $10,000 each month if the goals are met.

It’s the same reward, but a different way of offering it.

4. Encourage Self-Compassion

Studies have now found that people who are self-compassionate are motivated to change and more likely to take the steps necessary to change and improve.

Every team has people that could get better. That could be said for everyone on a team. Some are pretty hard on themselves and that’s been see as a good thing in the past.

But now it seems that the best way to approach frustration with performance is to look at the situation for what it is. Leave out judgment of the situation, but address it and allow for self-compassion for the situation.

The key is to embrace the motivation to improve. See what is happening. See what can be done and then move on from difficult times to take the steps necessary to improve.

5. Mental Contrasting

Every NFL team has the fantasy of winning the Super Bowl. They all have that fantasy, but only one teams wins each year and some teams have never won.

Part of the issue could be that simply dreaming something is not enough. That might seem obvious, but it’s easy to have a dream. It’s difficult to have a plan and see what really needs to occur for success to happen.

This is called mental contrasting.

You start with the fantasy (winning the Super Bowl) and then contrast it with reality (how far away is this team from winning the Super Bowl). That dose of reality is tough for many. And as a result we don’t often think about the real situation we’re in and what needs to happen to achieve a goal.

But practicing this with the team can provide the proper kind of motivation. It can get the team to understand that the vision is there and that steps need to be taken to achieve the vision. With mental contrasting, people are forced to make decisions. They see the rocky road and can decide if they want to take it. If they do, they’ll be very motivated the entire way and will be in a much better position to achieve success.


Motivation is a real tricky situation in business. It’s easy to think that you’re paying someone to do a job, maybe even a bonus, so they should have all the motivation they need to do their job. But usually that’s not enough and it’s frustrating. But if you have an understanding of how the brain works you can tap into what motivates people and get them working. Money will always matter so you can’t often skimp there, but it’s usually not enough. Try one of the five items above or a couple and see how it impacts your team’s motivation.

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