Business PracticesStaff Retention

How do you motivate your team?

A motivated team

Common theories on how to motivate teams

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States of America, once described leadership as

“the art of getting someone else to do something you want because he wants to do it”.

But how can you make your team want to do something? The desire to undertake a task comes from what we believe will happen afterwards; the result is our motivation. That result may well be financial for some, but for others it can be the promise of recognition, of a job well done, or the opportunity for promotion. There are many motivational theories out there that claim to tell us how to motivate our staff to do exactly what we want them to do. These must be approached with caution – we are all individuals after all – but the theories themselves are a brilliant basis on which to consider your team, their personal circumstances and how you think they are motivated to achieve.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

There is one overarching theory of motivation that almost everyone has heard of – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy suggests that we must have our most basic needs fulfilled before we can begin to be motivated by more complex matters. Therefore, before we can start to consider how our leadership style affects motivation within our workplace, we must ensure we are meeting the basic needs of our team. Does the team have a safe working environment? Is it heated and ventilated, with access to food and water when required? How do our pay and conditions compare to our competitors and other local employers?

Sense of belonging

Once these basic needs are met, Maslow asserts that motivation begins to come from a sense of belonging and social interaction. Team spirit can be a massive motivator, so consider how you foster that within your workplace. Maslow’s Hierarchy then focuses on the motivational value of your team having self-belief and high self-esteem. As a leader, this is your opportunity to stretch your team, give praise where it is due, and offer individuals the opportunity to learn and develop where they can. As your team feel valued and start to believe in their abilities, their excitement, ambition and motivation grows. Finally, Maslow believes the ultimate motivator is self-actualisation. Whilst you may not be able to provide that on a plate, the work you have done to create an autonomous, creative, self-confident and motivated workforce will pay off for both your team members and the business.

McClelland’s Achievement and Acquired Needs

McClelland’s Achievement and Acquired Needs Theory contains many of the same ideas as Maslow, but instead McClelland asserts that we do not all need everything within the Hierarchy of Needs, but instead we will identify with a specific element. McClelland categorised people as one of an N-Ach, N-Pow, or N-Affil person. There is no questionnaire or checklist for McClelland’s theory; instead you will get to know your team and then consider which person they most closely correspond to.


An N-Ach person will be motivated by achievement, recognition and advancement; give them personal responsibility but remember that they will also need your support. Be aware also that they are so driven by achievement that this can affect their relationships with other in your team who have different needs.


An N-Pow person desires to motivate or lead others, driven by a sense of power. This need for power is not as inherently bad as it may first sound, as this person will be loyal and committed to the organisation, but ensure that you do not allow them to become too forceful.


An N-Affil person seeks relationships, interaction and acceptance from others. They are a powerful networker and negotiator, provided it doesn’t impact upon their core job role.

Hackman & Oldham

Hackman and Oldham take this even further, by considering that everyone can be motivated by a well-designed job role that incorporates meaningfulness, responsibility and feedback. By following the theories of Hackman and Oldham, optimum motivation can be achieved by giving your team a role that they deem to be meaningful, allows them an element of autonomy, and where they can deliver a task from start to finish. Meaningfulness can be difficult in some roles – some roles just are monotonous – but it is still possible to ensure the team involved in those roles can see meaning from their work. Consistently link what they are doing back to the impact upon the end customer; a worker sterilising operating theatre tools all day would not necessarily describe their role as exciting, but by considering that safe operations could not happen without their input, they see how their role is meaningful.

The need for recognition

The common thread throughout all of the theories discussed so far is the intrinsic human need for recognition, feedback and a good level of communication. This was discussed in one of the most useful and adaptable leadership theories of all; Berne’s Theory of Transactional Analysis. The Theory of Transactional Analysis is based around the state of mind that a person is in when they send or receive a message. If good communication is a staple of motivation, then Berne’s theory is key in ensuring that your messages are interpreted as you intended.

Berne identified five styles of behaviour (known as ‘ego states’) that we use when communicating:

  • Critical Parent – An overbearing, directive, parental style
  • Nurturing Parent – Telling, but under the façade of advice and guidance
  • Free Child – Expressing emotion without constraint, akin to a toddler
  • Adaptive Child – Lacking confidence and eager to please
  • Adult – Acting with maturity, rationally and calmly

By ensuring that we communicate in an adult ego state, and encourage our teams to communicate with us in an adult ego state, we are far more likely to achieve effective communication.

If we had to identify one theory of motivation to take away and remember, this would be it. The other theories can give you ideas, but all are grounded on the need for effective communication. To offer feedback, job enrichment, responsibility and social interaction, we need to be able to communicate. When a team member is not motivated, we need to have the skills to broach the subject, listen and communicate effectively, and help them to move past their slump.

Above all, don’t forget to spend some motivating yourself. Only then will you have a team working at the top of their game.

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