a giant hand holding three business professionals staring off at a giant stack of presents being brought in by a forklift to show that extrinsic rewards are one of the ways to motivate employees, and also how to motivate staff to encourage teamwork


Ways to Motivate Employees: 4 Practical Steps for Leaders

Learn how leaders are using these four practical ways to motivate employees and boost team morale in the workplace.

Publish Date: September 14, 2022

Read Time: 8 min

Author: Greta Permann

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“How can I motivate people on my team?” That’s the number one question leaders ask me when I'm facilitating leadership training. Similarly, I hear questions like, how can I keep morale up when things aren’t going well? How can I keep people happy without promotions or the right budget? I’ve often asked myself, is it really up to leaders to find ways to motivate employees? Isn’t motivation something that you, yourself, must bring to the table?

By saying a leader is solely responsible for employee motivation, we assume that an employee is a blank canvas in need of external motivators. However, that isn't the case. I believe leaders should spend more time asking themselves, am I creating the best possible environment to motivate my team? As leaders, we bear the responsibility of making sure the circumstances are ripe for this to happen. 

What Is Employee Motivation?

Before we highlight what types of motivation exist, let’s look at what employee motivation is and why it’s needed.

As leaders, we want employees to be highly motivated at work. This is essential because a motivated employee is both committed and enthusiastic at work. Employee engagement is a crucial component of a healthy and productive workplace. It’s no surprise that low motivation at work can result in lower retention, work quality, and productivity.

Although everyone sources their motivation differently, leaders often make the mistake of assuming that people are motivated by the same things. Experiencing employee recognition might motivate me to go the extra mile tomorrow, but that may not be a motivational factor for someone else on my team. For them, it might be company culture or work-life balance instead.

So, the first step in motivating your team is to find out what truly motivates the people in it. Think about ways to motivate employees that would make them show up energized, engaged, free of doubt, and full of morale. What do employees actually want from a workplace?

More than anything, they want to work in a place where they can make meaningful contributions. The reality is that employees constantly re-evaluate their relationship to work. Job seekers are looking for more than just a place of employment. They’re looking for a place where they belong, and motivational leaders can help them feel that way.

Types of Employee Motivation

There are two types of employee motivation—extrinsic and intrinsic.

For years, companies have focused more on extrinsic motivators. I’m talking about company-centric rewards, such as bonuses, salary increases, or promotions. Extrinsic rewards can have limited impact over time if they don’t happen regularly. This type of reward is most effectively used to prompt buy-in or participation initially, or to reinforce very crucial behaviors that leaders value.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation comes from employees themselves. These are inner motivating factors, such as a sense of autonomy or worthiness, or perhaps the determination to do good work. Intrinsic motivation is about engaging in behaviors that stem from an individual’s goals towards professional fulfillment.  

The scenarios most effective offering intrinsic rewards depend largely on the needs of employees themselves. Intrinsic rewards are part of what keeps them motivated during their work week and throughout their careers. 

Based on my own research and experience, I see intrinsic rewards as more effective for leaders as a day-to-day focus. The secret to keeping a team member engaged and dedicated to their work is using intrinsic rewards to increase their motivation level, without forgetting to extrinsically reward them outside of that.

4 Steps Leaders Can Take to Improve Employee Motivation

Step 1: Assess your team’s motivation levels.

Take time every month to review the motivation levels of each team member. You can assess current levels by paying attention to body language and conversations taking place. Workplace motivation and demotivation manifests differently in each employee and may reveal itself in their productivity levels or energy brought to meetings.

Additionally, there are a few warning signs of decreased employee engagement that you can look out for. If you are unsure how to spot low morale, or suspect a dark cloud has fallen over your team, try asking open-ended questions during your 1-1’s like:

  1. What would you rate your motivation level on a scale from 1-10?
  2.  What would need to happen to move it up one point on the scale?
  3. What’s motivating you right now?
  4. What’s demotivating you right now?

It’s important to schedule 1-1's with your team members to make space for these eye-opening conversations.

In our DDI course, Valuing Differences, we use the SAMs concept, which stands for Styles, Abilities, and Motivations:

  • Styles are the unique ways of approaching situations.
  • Abilities are an individual’s knowledge level, skills, and capabilities.
  • Motivations are the goals, values, and things an employee works towards. It’s the driving force behind productivity and job satisfaction—the things that incite, interest, and inspire people.

Your team members will each have different styles, abilities, and motivations. Let's explore the different facets of motivations a little deeper. Have a look at these types of motivations at work:

  • Achievement
  • Coaching Others
  • Complexity
  • Continuous Learning
  • Helpfulness
  • High Involvement
  • High Responsibility
  • Interpersonal Support
  • Relationship Building
  • Standardized Work
  • Task Variety
  • Visibility

So, how can you use this list? Start by choosing your strongest motivations. Have your team members do the same and discuss your choices together. Gathering these thoughts will help you paint a picture of what drives your own motivation and how it differs from the motivations of your employees.

Step 2: Assess your own motivation level.

So far, we’ve talked about ways to motivate employees, specifically what leaders can do to motivate others. But how can leaders motivate themselves? It’s always good to spend some time thinking about what drives you to do your best work. It’s hard to focus on motivating others if you’re not sure what motivates yourself.

Perhaps your own lack of motivation gets in the way without you even noticing, impacting people on your team. Be very candid with yourself; how would you rate your own motivation on a scale from 1-10? What needs to happen to move it up one step on the scale?

This line of self-questioning raises even more questions. What does a motivated leader look like? And what about an unmotivated leader? Having seen examples of both and much in between, I would say a motivated leader is someone who has a strong sense of purpose, who shows up every day with a vision. Someone who can explain the why, not just the how. Authenticity is key too, since fake enthusiasm can be harmful to your team’s overall morale. Being authentic in these situations can help build trust and deepen relationships with your employees.

Another good question to ask yourself is what energy you bring to your team. After a team meeting, take a few minutes to reflect on the answer to this question. If you aren’t sure, ask for feedback.

Step 3: Be an ambassador for your team’s purpose.

Purpose is important to the concept of intrinsic rewards. Having common goals and a shared purpose is crucial for uniting your team under a common “why.” Knowing the reasons behind a goal will motivate team members to act towards that goal.

There is a reason why I stress the importance of the “why” over the “what” or the “how." Simon Sinek, a thought leader in the world of leadership development, once stated that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. How can everyone know that their actions support a bigger goal?
  2. Do my team members know the overarching goal of their tasks?
  3. Does my team know why we’re doing what we’re doing?

If you’re struggling to find good answers to the questions above, this is your sign to learn how to better advocate for your team’s purpose. If you’re having trouble connecting your team's purpose to the overarching purpose of your company, carry your concerns up the organizational chart. Chances are that your own leaders can help connect how your team's work is advancing the greater good of the organization.

Step 4: Improve your communication skills to increase employee motivation.

Communication is an important part of intrinsic rewarding. Having open lines of intentional communication is one way to motivate employees significantly. There is plenty of evidence backing the idea that communication is a key skill for workplace success. If the people in your team feel heard, valued, and respected, they’ll be less doubtful. 

Keep these five Key Principles in mind during every conversation you have with your team:

  • Maintain or enhance self-esteem
  • Listen and respond with empathy
  • Ask for help and encourage involvement
  • Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale (to build trust)
  • Provide support without removing responsibility (to build ownership)

Keeping these in mind will help you meet your employees’ needs of being valued. When this need is met, you know you’re helping your team members feel good about themselves and their work. You provide encouragement for them to share their own unique styles, abilities, and motivations. This simple mindset shift can multiply the number of ideas and discoveries on your team, bringing new perspectives out into the open.

In Conclusion:

Use Intrinsic Employee Motivation for Long-Term Engagement

In summary, there are many ways to motivate employees, not just one tried-and-true method. Leaders can create the right environment for employees to be motivated at work if they think about:

  • Being aware of different types of motivations.
  • Assessing their team’s motivation levels.
  • Assessing and being aware of their own motivation levels.
  • Being an ambassador for their team’s purpose and the “why.”
  • Continuously improving their communication skills. 

Intrinsic employee motivation is largely baked into the equation of sharing a clear purpose and having healthy, inclusive, and productive interactions. This is the strong foundation that leaders and teams must build on for engagement and long-term success. Thoughtful leaders work hard to create the right environment for employees to be successful, and it all starts with asking them and yourself one simple question: what motivates you?

“You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both those methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation.”  – Homer Rice

Learn more about how to boost employee engagement

Greta Permann is a leadership consultant at DDI. She is passionate about facilitating leadership training and coaching leaders through various challenges. Outside work Greta enjoys exploring international cuisines and racing on the running track with her two boys.