Empowering teams through motivation is the spark that ignites teams toward greatness, but inspiring and sustaining motivation among team members is a multifaceted endeavor. It requires leaders to delve into the intricacies of human psychology, understand the unique drivers of each individual, and cultivate an environment where intrinsic motivation flourishes.


Psychologists define motivation as the “energizing of behavior in pursuit of a goal, a fundamental element of our interaction with the world and each other.” We all share motivation to obtain our basic needs such as food, water, and social interaction, but what motivates each person, and why are some more motivated than others? Plus, why do motivational processes get disrupted, for instance with conditions such as schizophrenia, or mood disorders like anxiety and depression, which often lead to addictions or harmful behaviors, especially when the clinical and personal consequences can be so devastating?
Motivated behaviors lead to a goal, and obtaining the goal is rewarding, thus motivating one further. Within psychology, there are many theories trying to explain all of this, from Hull’s early drive theory, which posits motivation is about reducing biological needs, to later theories such as Duffy and Hebb’s, who stated that motivation consists of both a goal-directed, directional component and an arousal, activation component, which is still in use today. Summarizing, it is a state of being plus a goal. Either way, an individual might have a goal they want to attain, and as information comes in from their own physiology, the environment, and their history, they essentially do a cost-benefit analysis of whether it is worth the cost, effort, and discomfort against the benefits of attaining that goal.
As a leader, this information is crucial to understand. The more you can get into that other person’s world, to understand what their goals are and what their cost-benefit analysis process is against those goals, the more you can coach them to help them achieve their goals. Utilizing the vision process within a coaching session helps you do that; it helps you work with that individual to identify their goals and then prioritize the key steps they need to take, while keeping them accountable. This is why it is so important for leaders who manage people to learn the basics of coaching.


In today’s modern remote working world, managers can’t necessarily force full mental engagement or push on the effort needed to drive progress without motivation in place. People are also driven by different intrinsic and extrinsic motivations based on their upbringing, stage of life, beliefs, etc. However, four key levers of motivation have stood the test of time across industries and demographics. With high-performing teams, you will see all four present, while building an engaged team requires at least three of these motivators as a bare minimum if you want to see long-term sustained motivation. None of the levers individually can sustain long-term motivation but might help with short-term motivation.
  1. Money – This trait requires the lowest effort from you as a leader in terms of implementation, assuming the organization has money to offer. It is also easier to quantify and compare money on offer from one job to another. There is always going to be a job that offers more money than another, and money can be a difficult lever to pull over the long term, especially if the individual feels that their role has no purpose, there is no respect, and they are burnt out. For short-term scenarios, this is a great lever to pull.
  2. Meaning – Meaning is everything and helps individuals find purpose in the impact their efforts create for others. Individuals who feel their work makes a difference in the world have an extrinsic motivation outside of their own feelings to drive progress toward a goal. It is about feeling like you are creating opportunities for others to achieve what they want in life. It is not, however, easy to instill and requires leaders to take their teams and organizations through the journey of identifying their purpose, mission, and hence their vision. Doing it collectively gathers alignment and buy-in, and individuals are more likely to feel personal ownership and fulfillment if you include them in the process. It all starts with a Vision!
  3. Momentum – Essentially, a project with more momentum has more promise for success than the alternatives. Momentum is often either underutilized and you achieve nothing or overutilized and burnout ensues. Momentum doesn’t necessarily indicate progress toward achieving goals and KPIs; rather, momentum is a series of moments continually sustained over a period of time. A series of smaller wins each day drives momentum, and it requires constant maintenance to identify and call out these small wins toward that goal. Working on even just one thing a day will make a huge difference over a year, so chip away toward the goal; focus on what needs to happen today. Also, track more metrics that highlight those small wins, identify all the to-dos, and celebrate the achievement of those, toward your vision and strategic goals.
  4. Mutual Respect – There is plenty of research that highlights having friends at work leads to increased productivity and retention, but it is not necessary to create motivation. A classic example of this is Netflix, which positions itself as an organization that focuses on being a dream team, rather than a family-type of culture. A dream team focuses on excelling, while a family accepts whatever is going on. In my time at Netflix, motivation was high, and people constantly strove for excellence, innovating at a fast pace as a result. I think primarily because innovative teams bring diverse perspectives to the table, and debate around that diversity of thinking ensues, which brings better solutions, decisions, outcomes, and mutual respect with it. In turn, this lets the different perspectives thrive, and as leaders, we definitely want to encourage our teams to share their thoughts and debate around differing perspectives. Each team member needs to acknowledge each other’s strengths and differences, and the leader should look to create opportunities to partner each person along their strengths, e.g., a visionary partnered with a detail-oriented person is a great partnership on a project! This is more about considering each other’s opinions, articulating the value each member brings to the table, without bias, and being willing to learn from each other’s expertise. You don’t need to be best friends to be great team members and have workability; you just need to partner along your strengths to be able to do your best work! Having that strong foundation of mutual respect is an important foundation to build as a leader.Every individual on a team or in an organization deserves and desires meaning, momentum, mutual respect, and money to produce their highest quality work, and bringing out the best in teams starts with a vision, involves understanding the team’s perspectives and strengths, driving momentum toward that vision, and enumerating them appropriately so that their hierarchy of needs is satisfied.


Individuals in your team or organization will perceive what you do and say as either a threat or a reward and will move from either disengaged, where performance is impacted, to engaged, where performance is high. Behind this is the nervous system, which moves you from the fight or flight state (sympathetic nervous system) to a calm state (the parasympathetic nervous system). There are usually five key domains of social threat and reward, and everyone is sensitive to these five domains to different degrees. Understanding these helps leaders to identify what might be going on and how to motivate them in different situations.
There are three key motivational models that you as a leader can lean into and utilize within your team or organization:
  1. SCARF Model – It is the model that is most often taught and used in organizations. It identifies five social domains that influence behavior and motivation: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. By understanding and addressing these domains, leaders can enhance motivation and reduce threats. It is an easy way to remember the domains across which people assess stimuli as either good or bad, i.e., as rewards or threats. Great for addressing interpersonal and emotional aspects of motivation.
  2. Motivation Spectrum – Recognizes that individuals are motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Essentially, you will work to identify the motivators, tailor that motivational strategy, set some goals, offer feedback or recognition, and support that growth. Suitable for a wide range of scenarios and identifying those motivational factors.
  3. Empowerment Framework – Focuses on giving individuals the autonomy and authority to make decisions and take ownership of their work. It is based on the belief that empowered individuals are more motivated, engaged, and productive. It involves delegating tasks based on strengths, offering support and resources, creating accountability structures, offering feedback, and continuous learning opportunities. Great for addressing issues related to autonomy, decision-making, and ownership.
Utilize these frameworks when there is low team morale, in 1-on-1s, if you need to improve performance, for goal setting, individual development, change management, conflict resolution, and team building. There are so many opportunities to leverage.
Remember, one of the most effective ways to motivate team members is through recognition and celebration of their achievements. Whether it’s a simple acknowledgment in a team meeting or a formal recognition program, highlighting the contributions and successes of individuals or teams fosters a sense of appreciation and reinforces desired behaviors.
Additionally, providing opportunities for growth and development is instrumental in fueling motivation. When team members see a clear path for advancement and feel supported in their professional development, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. Leaders can facilitate this by offering training programs, mentorship opportunities, and stretch assignments that challenge and inspire growth.
Fostering a sense of purpose and autonomy empowers team members to take ownership of their work and make meaningful contributions to the organization’s mission and goals. When individuals understand how their efforts contribute to the broader vision and are given the autonomy to make decisions and solve problems, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and driven to excel. By understanding the unique motivations of each team member and leveraging them effectively.