How To Motivate Employees In 3 Surprisingly Simple Steps

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woman speaking to employees

© mangostar_studio / Adobe Stock

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Jane Scudder15
May 25, 2024 at 9:7PM UTC
Whether you’re new to being a manager or (you think) you’re a seasoned pro at being a boss, people and team managers often constantly wrestle with the question of how to motivate employees.
Particularly if you manage more than one person or if your team is full of different personality types, figuring out how to motivate employees can seem like an impossible task with no real solution.
I’m here to tell you that that’s not the case.
So what are some of the best ways to motivate people — and thereby enhance their job satisfaction, employee performance and productivity? 
1. Understand them.
Each of your employees and team members is different, and those differences and quirks hold the secret to motivating them. Most managers I’ve coached have expressed struggling with different personalities and different types of employees, and have found it particularly difficult to figure out motivation techniques that work for everyone. Some people’s motivation comes from setting goals, or identifying incentives, or working toward rewards. Sometimes employee motivation depends upon getting recognition for productivity or achieving a healthy work-life balance scenario.
And interestingly—though not surprisingly—when a manager believes she has something in common with a direct report she feels she’s more effective in managing her. It’s when we cannot relate to—or don’t understand our employees—that we’re not as effective at managing them and keeping them motivated. 
This makes sense: It’s easier to understand someone who we can relate to or “see ourselves in.” But it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to relate to, and understand, someone who works differently from us. It just means we have to put in a little effort.
If you’re thinking, “Ugh, see—I knew it! This is going to be a lot of work.” Stop. Yes, it will be work (that’s why it’s called work!) but another misconception with understanding and motivating employees is that it takes years and endless hours. Again, not true. Time certainly helps, and will only add to your understanding of a person, but there is one quick (and easy!) thing you can to do understand your team members: 
2. Ask them.
Specifically, ask about work preferences and personal drivers. Ask an associate how she prefers to work, what her ideal work-life balance is, whether she prefers to be acknowledged and get recognition in public or privately, if she likes speaking in front of people, what her professional—and personal—aspirations and goals are, and what simply drives her can be tackled over an informal lunch, coffee, or even a 30 minute meeting. You may not get full answers immediately, but sometimes you will (and how someone responds to direct questions is a valuable thing to learn in itself!)
The simple act of asking employees these questions will not only offer at least an initial glimpse of the all-important understanding of this person, but you’ll also be creating the environment in which this person will feel motivated because she knows she can—and should—openly share about herself, her style, and preferences.
The results? She’ll be more comfortable with you, you’ll begin to understand how she ticks and what drives her to get the best work, and you’ll learn how to work within these preferences to then motivate her!
Yes these can—and will be—the results. But there’s one final piece of unearthing someone’s preferences and drivers to motivate them. 
3. Listen.
To motivate people, you need to listen to them. Employee performance and employee engagement rests largely on a manager’s ability to make her team members feel like their voices matter (this can also do wonders for job satisfaction!) Maybe one of your direct reports has dreams of being an executive in 5 years; maybe another is completely content and would resent a leadership role. The ways in which you use these motivators and approach those two employees should be fundamentally different in order to be effective. But you won’t know this until you understand your team and how they envision their future at your company.
To recap: the key to employee motivation and employee engagement lies in understanding, asking, and listening. Then you need to process and respect the individual through your management style. This seemingly small formula can fundamentally change the way you interact with—and successfully motivate—your team.
Jane Scudder is a certified coach, facilitator, and workplace & leadership consultant based in Chicago, IL. She helps individuals and group navigate their careers, teams, and personal lives. Find out more at

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