Help Employees Motivate Themselves

If motivating employees were as simple as handing out a few dollars for a job well done, a manager’s job would be simple. You could set up your rewards program, sit back, and watch it happen. You might even put yourself out of a job.

As a manager, you know that pushing employees to greatness works nothing like that. (So, I guess your job is safe.) In Jill Geisler’s 2012 book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” she devotes a few pages to intrinsic motivation.  She first defines extrinsic motivators as the factors that “come from outside the employee — things like praise, awards, salaries, bonuses, learning opportunities, leadership, perks, benefits….”  She then describes intrinsic motivation as “the internal engine that drives each of us.”

Managers need to affect that internal engine, then use the external motivators to fan the flame.

Serious afro-american woman with painted muscular arms on chalkboardEach of us does a lot of things we don’t get paid to do — volunteer work, donations, growing our own vegetables, dieting. Why do we do these things? Satisfaction, appreciation, recognition, health, comradery…. examine the reasons and you’ll find your internal drivers.  

Let’s focus on four internal drivers that are behind most of the things we do, from Geisler’s book: Competence, Autonomy, Purpose, and Growth.

  1. Competence. “We want to do things we’re good at because it makes us happy,” says Geisler. But, let’s be honest, not everything in someone’s job is something they’re good at. Geisler relates it to learning to play a musical instrument: At first you’re really bad and must be prodded to practice. Over time, you get better … maybe even good … and you want to play because it sounds great.  Geisler states, “as a manager, “you need to stay close enough to know each employee as an individual, to know what makes them tick, what they’re good at, and what makes them happy. You give them sufficient opportunities to be motivated by competence, so they’ll trust and accept when you ask them to take on other duties, even those that aren’t their favorites.”


And don’t reserve praise for extraordinary work. Day-to-day contributions are an opportunity to build competencies. “If I tell you you’re my go-to person when it comes to a particular skill, talent, or task, it’s a reputation you’ll work hard to maintain.”


  1. Autonomy. According to Geisler,“People are more likely to embrace ideas and solutions of their own creation.” A boss interested in providing more autonomy shares more information, gives staff input on decisions that affect them, and doesn’t micromanage. She continues, “Look for opportunities to give people more choice in designing their work, not less.”


Hispanic father yelling at son painting fenceGive employees enough freedom to try out their ideas, to solve problems, and to make mistakes. Be available to jump in as a team player and lend support to help them realize success — and give them credit for their victory.


  1. Purpose. People need to hear how their work affects others. The things an employee might hear at his or her retirement party are the things they should hear from you every day. Whether it’s that they have a knack for making each customer feel special, their interactions with the team are always so positive and upbeat, or they don’t give up until the problem is solved, tell them. Notice the little things that make a difference, and make a point of pointing them out.


  1. Growing BusinessmanGrowth. Accomplishing something that challenged you makes you feel good. Geisler suggests that setting “stretch assignments” challenges employees. It’s important to recognize when an employee is ready for this challenge … too soon, and the risk of failing is higher. Too late … and the risk of boredom is great. When the time is right, make the assignment and “stay close enough to help but not to meddle.”


Celebrate milestones as they are conquered, especially if the new assignment is complicated or will take a long time to complete. Have faith in your employee and tell him or her you do.

“Great bosses don’t motivate employees — they help employees motivate themselves,” says Geisler. Pay close attention to employees’ internal drivers. Then use the right extrinsic motivators to keep momentum going.



Business cartoon about the ability to motivate others, but not yourself.

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