What Really Motivates People?

Charles Watkins

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When it comes to motivation, law firm leaders often think in terms of carrots and sticks. But Charles Watkins, Chief of Staff for Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, knows from his long career in public service and politics that it takes more than just rewards and penalties to bring out the very best in people.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to lead teams within government, in higher education and nonprofits, and groups of volunteers advocating for a policy or campaigning for a candidate. Those experiences have given me a front-row seat to what mobilizes individuals to deliver their best work and sustain that commitment over the long haul. To some extent, things like compensation, benefits, job title and work environment incentivize the kind of behavior leaders are hoping to see. But nothing compares to the power of a shared mission, with common values and goals when it comes to motivating a team.

Understanding and believing in the purpose of their work, accomplishing it with integrity, and sharing a vision of what counts as success can bring together people of all walks of life and varying perspectives, just as an orchestra brings together disparate instruments. Each one makes a unique contribution to the sound, but they are all playing the same song.

Experienced leaders know that these healthy, productive cultures don’t spring up spontaneously; instead, organizations where everyone seems to be in harmony are the result of careful planning and many intentional decisions at every level. Is this a lot of work? Yes. But nothing will make a bigger impact on the ultimate success of your project, case, initiative or campaign. Here are three things leaders can do to make it happen:

Bottom Up: All Team Members Participate in Creating the Culture

People are more motivated when they understand how the role that they play directly impacts the organization’s ability to achieve its goals, so leaders must be purposeful about highlighting the importance of each contribution and how interdependent the team really is.

Leaders then build support from the bottom up by engaging all team members in the process of making the culture explicit and intentional:

  • Articulate the purpose of your organization’s work and the beliefs that will guide decision-making
  • Identify a set of concrete goals that are aligned with that mission and those values
  • Establish the metrics you will use to determine success and share them across the organization

Not only does this bottom-up process increase motivation, but it also guards against a “founder syndrome” problem, where the vision for the organization is embodied in a single person who may or may not always be in a position of leadership. When everyone embraces and participates in the ongoing creation of your culture, they will all feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to carry it forward.

Top Down: Leaders Set the Standard

At the same time leaders engage the entire team, it is critical that they themselves manifest the organization’s mission and values and lead by example in everything they do. Because if there is a disconnect between what the leaders say and what they actually do, it sends an implicit message that those values are optional or that the people in power are exempt from the rules that apply to the other members of the organization. There is probably nothing more demotivating, detrimental and corrosive to your organization’s culture.

One way that leaders can manifest the organization’s mission and values is to communicate how every new initiative, internal process or key project is consistent with the foundational mission, values and goals. For some leaders, this will feel too time-consuming, but the investment of patience and attention required will pay off when team members can trust that decisions are being made with transparency and integrity.

When the mission, values and goals of the organization are authentic and meaningful, leaders won’t just be clustered solely at the top of the chain. People throughout the organization, at all levels, will be empowered to lead.

Reflection and Ongoing Communication Ensure Accountability

Articulating your organization’s mission, values and goals is not a one-time job, though unfortunately many leaders think of it that way. Instead, these ideas remain alive on a day-to-day basis, and should be the subtext of every conversation team members have internally or externally with clients and other stakeholders. How can you know whether that is taking place? Find multiple ways to stay in touch.

In the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, my colleague Valarie Rand, the Chief Operating Officer, as well as Lieutenant Governor Stratton herself, do an excellent job convening conversations to discuss the progress of initiatives and, importantly, to hear feedback from the teams on successes and missed opportunities, lessons learned and next steps.

My focus is on the more informal one-on-one conversations over the course of the week, month, and year. I have found that the question “How are things going?” can produce some powerful answers, but team members must feel safe in sharing their unvarnished opinions and be confident that you will actually listen. It’s also important for leaders to get out of their echo chamber and not limit their inquiries to people in one job function or department. Make sure you are hearing different perspectives from across the organization. 

Asking is just the first step. Once leaders hear feedback on how well team members think the organization is living up to its mission and values, they need to do something with it. That may mean addressing and correcting behavior that is not consistent with the culture, whether that person is in the middle of the hierarchy or at the very top. One hopes that, more often, it will mean highlighting positive activity that is moving the organization closer to its goals, and developing ways to replicate that exemplary work across more members of the team.

Good leaders bring out the best in people and unlock their potential. That starts with creating a culture where everyone understands the importance of the role that they play in living out the mission, values and goals of the organization.