3 Questions to Motivate Your Team in the New Year

by Jon Ogden
, 7 min read
questions to motivate your team

By Jon Ogden | Senior Manager of Content Marketing at Workfront

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“If you lead any type of work,” Workfront CEO Alex Shootman writes in his book Done Right, “you’re accountable to motivate others to do that work well.”

To help readers know how to motivate others, Alex outlines three essential questions. He writes, “If you and your team members aren’t able to answer these questions well, you haven't yet created an environment where people see that their work matters. It is up to you, as the leader, to get these questions answered in such a way that people are intrinsically motivated.”

So, can you and each person on your team successfully answer these three questions?

1. Do you know your role?

On the face of it, answering this question seems easy. Just rattle off your job title, and bingo. But your role is more than your title. It’s about tying your individual strengths to the needs of the company so you can best contribute to its success. 

This means that you and each person on your team must know your strengths and collectively inspire each other to use those strengths to achieve the mission of your company.

One example of a company that does this well is Ray Dalio’s hedge fund, Bridgewater. To make sure everyone’s strengths are visible across the organization Dalio created an app that shows the strengths of each team member alongside feedback from other employees. No one is immune from this feedback — not even executives, who are rated by all employees (even those fresh out of college).

What’s so compelling and provocative about Dalio’s approach is that every aspect of the process is transparent. Anyone can sign in and see anyone else’s strengths as viewed by themselves and by others. This visibility may seem unnerving (and it likely is!), but as Dalio writes about in his book Principles, his goal at Bridgewater is to promote a culture of complete honesty instead of passive aggressive “niceness.”

This direct and transparent approach is critical to the success of Bridgewater. Dalio says, "My objective has been to have meaningful work and meaningful relationships with the people I work with, and I've learned that I couldn't have that unless I had that radical transparency and that algorithmic decision-making.”

Another example of honing strengths comes from Soar, a company created by Paul Allen, who founded Ancestry.com and works as an evangelist for StrengthsFinder. Soar connects teams and individuals around the globe with personal coaches who guide people to fully use their strengths. The aim of the company is to help clients see how they can successfully make unique contributions wherever they work.

At Workfront, we use a program called Insights to bring self-awareness to teams and individuals. Each employee takes a test that measures them on four metrics which are aligned to a certain color — red, yellow, green, and blue. Those who are red tend to be competitive, determined, and purposeful. Those who are yellow tend to be sociable, dynamic, and persuasive Those who are green tend to be relaxed, patient, and encouraging. And those who are blue tend to be cautious, precise, and deliberate.

By applying a variety of approaches like those listed above, you and your team can get a clear idea of how each person fits into your company. In this way, you can know your role, which puts you on the path to offer your unique contributions.

2. Do you believe your role matters?

Generally speaking, people believe their role matters to the extent the role alleviates suffering. If your role does not alleviate suffering — or if you can’t see how it alleviates suffering — you likely won’t believe your work matters.

You can see this is true by imagining that you were tasked for the next 50 years with signing into a website and clicking a useless digital button 10,000 times a day without anything to show for it. If you had to do this, would you believe your job mattered? Likely not. Clicking a digital button 10,000 times a day doesn’t reduce anyone’s pain. It doesn’t matter.

Fortunately, there are many ways to alleviate suffering. You could create and sell software that makes an aggravating task less aggravating. You could sell delicious food. You could move garbage to junkyards, clean hotel rooms, or work in hospitality. You could physically heal the sick. Whatever approach you take, the important thing is that you work to alleviate suffering. That’s how you will truly believe your work matters.

Unfortunately, it can be easy to deceive ourselves into doing work that does little to alleviate suffering. Think back to the example of clicking a button 10,000 times. What if you were paid well to do it? Would you do it then, even if it required 50 years of your life? Getting paid well would alleviate your personal financial pain. But the work in itself would not alleviate suffering. So would you do it?

It may sound like a far-fetched scenario, but it’s sadly not too far from the mark in some cases. For instance, a full 37% of British workers feel like their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. And 55% of US adults who work for a private company say their work is “just what they do for a living” (as opposed to something “that gives them a sense of identity”). Many of these workers likely feel that their jobs are worthwhile because they bring a paycheck, but don’t have much worth beyond that. As a result, they're disengaged. And the costs of widespread disengagement are high, with Harvard professor Teresa Amabile putting the figure at $300 billion per year for the US economy.

If you and your team members don’t believe your work matters, it may be because the connection between what you do and the pain you alleviate isn’t clear. To fix this problem, you might promote case studies and testimonials so that your team can see how their efforts are helping real people. Or you might ask happy end users to share their praise with your team in person, so it sinks in more fully. Whatever approach you take, it’s essential to promote stories that clearly draw a connection between what each worker does and the pain that their work alleviates. When you do this well, you will have a team that believes their work matters.

3. Do you have a chance to be proud of your work?

There’s a story in Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson that has stayed with me for years. It starts in the early 1980s, when Jobs peeled off a small group of Apple employees to work on launching the Macintosh computer. Jobs pushed his team to the point of exhaustion, all while constantly getting into the boneheaded interpersonal conflicts that defined his career.

And yet years later many of the original team looked back on those years fondly, simply because they built something they were proud of. Andy Hertzfeld, a computer scientist who worked on the project said, “First and foremost, Steve Jobs thought of himself as an artist, and he encouraged the design team to think of ourselves that way, too. The goal was never to beat the competition, or to make a lot of money; it was to do the greatest thing possible, or even a little greater.”

Obviously, life for the people on Jobs’s team would have been better without all the conflict (something Jobs learned later in life), but there’s something admirable about Jobs's demand for quality. When Isaacson asked Jobs late in his life about his tendency to be rough on the people he worked with, Jobs responded by saying, “Look at the results. These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalized. But they don’t.” Isaacson says that Jobs then paused and said, “And we got some amazing things done.” In other words, people often didn’t like the way Jobs treated them, even late in his career. But they were committed to Apple because they were building quality products. They aimed for quality, and they were proud of their work.

Business consultant Charalambos A. Vlachoutsicos supports the importance of helping people be proud of their work. He says, “In my experience by far the best way to motivate your employees is to find ways that they can take pride in their skills and their knowledge. When you do this, you very quickly discover that people stop being passive followers and start to share their insights and ideas. Instead of being loyal to their paychecks they become loyal to the company.” 

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So, do you know your role, believe your work matters, and have a chance to be proud of your work? If you do, does each person on your team feel the same?

If you and each person on your team can answer “yes” to these three questions, you’re almost certainly motivated to have a successful 2019.

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