Motivating Others…And Yourself: The Four Levers of Motivation

If you need to motivate others then here are four levers that you can pull that work with developers and other IT staff; If you’re feeling unmotivated by your own work, here’s why you feel that way (and, perhaps, what you can do about it).

Four Motivational Levers

As head of an IT department, I figured that I had three jobs. I needed to make sure that my team:

  • Was working on the projects that were most valuable for my company
  • Had all the resources they needed
  • Were happy

The first and last of those goals sometimes conflict: working on the most important projects didn’t always lead to everyone being happy. As a result, I had to learn something about motivating my team.

The Two Insights

As we discuss in Learning Tree’s Management Skills for an IT Environment course, Marcus Buckingham has identified four levers that can be used to help motivate employees. Turning that around, it means that if you’re currently feeling underwhelmed about your job then the odds are that your organization isn’t pulling one or more of these levers with you. If you want to change how you feel about your job, therefore, you’ll need to negotiate with your management to find ways to incorporate these levers into your job (though, of course, it might be easier to find another job).

Marcus’ conclusions are based both on research and two fundamental insights — insights that we all recognize.

The first insight: If someone isn’t good at some task, then it requires enormous efforts (both by the person involved and the organization) to get that person to even an adequate level of performance. Furthermore, the person will never be very good at those tasks and will never enjoy doing them or look forward to carrying them out. At best, the person will regard those tasks as a necessary evil — something they have to be do in order to keep their job.

The second insight is the reverse of the first: When someone is good at a task, it requires very little effort to make that person better at performing that task. Often, in fact, the person will work on their own to improve their performance at that task. In many cases, there is almost no limit to how good that person can become at those tasks, so a little investment in support often pays off in extraordinary dividends. In addition, these are tasks that the person almost always enjoys doing and looks forward to doing. When someone is exercising these skills (Marcus calls them “strengths”), often the biggest problem that management has is redirecting the employee to some other task that doesn’t use their strengths.

And research bears that out: In one survey, employees were asked what would they would prefer doing instead of their current job. 60 percent said either “What I am doing now, with increased responsibility” or “A specialized subset of what I’m doing now.” Only 31 percent said they’d prefer a different job. A related survey question was “Why did you take your current job?” The most common response was “Greater opportunity to do more of what I like to do” (“More money to do what I was already doing,” came in second).

The Intrinsic Levers

In terms of motivation, putting those two insights together means that, if you draw on a person’s strengths then people become self-motivating — you don’t need to motivate them at all because the work itself motivates them (motivation is said to be intrinsic to the job). Your job as a manager then becomes “staying out of their way” (and, occasionally, redirecting them to work on something else). The first two levers reflect that approach.

The first lever is Interest value: Individuals tend to do what interests them most. When a person is assigned a new task that’s something they’re interested in, the chances of them accepting and succeeding at that task increase tremendously. For IT people an area of interest can be some technology set they enjoy applying to problems (data management, user application development, middle tier development) or even a particular tool set (Java, .NET). It might also be working in a particular area of the business where they’ve developed specialized knowledge — they’re happy to apply any tool set as long as they get to work on, for example, operations-related problems.

The second level is Skill value: Individuals are attracted to tasks that let them exercise their strengths. For example, developers who are people-oriented are going to want to work at the UI level where solving users’ problems involves working directly with those users. Developers with a very logical bent might find data design and management an area they enjoy because that’s a field where relational database theory and the “three rules of normalization” provide a framework for everything. Developers with a strong sense of vision work best in new development; developers who are good at “making things better” often prefer maintenance.

The Extrinsic Levers

However, it’s not always possible for an organization to provide jobs with intrinsic value for every employee. In those cases, you’ll need to look at the other two levers which provide motivation from outside the work itself (these are said to extrinsic to the work).

The third lever, for example, is Utility value: The benefits associated with the job make the job attractive. An employee might like a job because they can walk to work, can live where there’s a lot of night life, have every third Friday off, or are working in the same company as their significant other. “Learning a new skill that may be valuable to their career” also falls into this category.

The fourth lever is Financial incentives: cash (and other tangible incentives) will motivate people when the other levers aren’t available. This lever can range from bonuses for performing specific tasks (cash, time off, or some other reward) to an actual raise. As employees get closer to retirement age, benefits around pensions and contract work after retirement become more valuable and are another example of the fourth lever.

The issue with these extrinsic levers is that the benefits aren’t tied to the person’s strengths or job. Because you’re not leveraging the person’s strengths, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get the best out of these people; it’s also very likely that you will lose these people to another job where the benefits are intrinsic to the work they’re doing (or where they’re paid more money). After all, if an employee has taken on some job to “learn a new skill that’s valuable to their career,” it doesn’t mean that their career will be with you.

If you’re wondering how to motivate others (either people who work for you or people you’d like to get to do something for you), you should consider how you can use the two insights and the first two levers to motivate those people. And, if that isn’t possible, use some other benefit or money — just recognize that it’s very difficult to keep people interested when all you’re pulling are those last two levers.

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