How-to Thought Leadership

Want to Motivate Your Team? This Framework Shows You How

Discover a systematic and sustainable approach to driving and scaling motivation.
4 min read

Updated on April 06, 2023

Published on October 08, 2021

Motivating teams

Motivation is a tricky topic, one that has leaders scratching their heads on how to master. How do you motivate employees, both now and in the future? 

According to Lindsay McGregor, co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of the bestselling book, Primed to Perform, motivation can be boiled down to a set of frameworks that leaders can apply to effectively inspire employees’ best work. In our latest entry in our Building Forward webinar series, she shared with us a systematic and sustainable approach to driving and scaling motivation. 

Demystifying traditional incentives

McGregor kicked off the webinar by presenting one of her team’s studies on motivation that involved toddlers, examining how helpful they can be when they witness a person dropping something.

In the study, three groups received different incentives when they helped the other person. Those in the control group — who received nothing when they helped — continued to help the object-dropping person 89% of the time. However, the second group, which received verbal praise, helped 81% of the time after receiving their incentive, and the third only helped 53% of the time after receiving a toy when they assisted. 

This is the exact opposite of what we’ve been taught, as tangible incentives — whether that’s prizes, money, or praise — are often positioned as the key to driving results. That begs the question, what inspires real motivation? 

Why we work 

To unearth the formula to true motivation, McGregor identified the types of motives that drive why we work. Called “The Motive Spectrum,” her framework can be organized into two categories of motives: direct and indirect.

Direct motives 

  • Play: You love the activity involved in your work
  • Purpose: You love the outcome of work, as it aligns with your identity, values, and beliefs
  • Potential: You care about the eventual outcome of your work or see it as a stepping stone to get to a further goal

Indirect motives

  • Emotional: You feel pressure, external forces, or guilt to do something
  • Economic: You feel financial pressure to work, or you do something to gain a reward or avoid a punishment
  • Inertia: You do something because you've always done it

Types of performance

Certain parts of this motive spectrum can result in either one of the two performance types that McGregor identified: tactical and adaptive. 

  1. Tactical: Follow best practices, stick to plans, adhere to instructions
  2. Adaptive: Create a better practice; focus on creativity, innovation, and problem-solving 

You can get tactical performance through both indirect and direct motives, but you only get adaptive performance from direct motives. In fact, indirect motives often destroy adaptive behavior. When indirect motives are present, total motivation — or ToMo, as McGregor likes to say — drops, causing effects such as stage fright, choking under pressure, writer's block, distraction, and more.

She provided a historical example of a successful mix of both tactical and adaptive performance involving Napoleon and the Battle of Trafalgar. During the battle, British leader Admiral Lord Nelson knew Napoleon’s fleet outnumbered his, and instructed his army to fight without his command as soon as they finished the tactical part of their plan. 

Once they divided the enemy ships, Nelson’s army became adaptive, trusting their training and instincts to ultimately defeat Napoleon's entire fleet and win the battle.

Similar to the British fleet, great teams need to learn to balance tactical and adaptive performance in ever-changing and complex environments.

Scaling up in small ways

“We shape our buildings, thereafter, they shape us.” - Winston Churchill 

McGregor cited the famous British leader to drive the final message home — you can use systems at your disposal to help influence motivation at scale within your organization. These systems are as follows:

  • Your company-wide identity 
  • Structure and planning
  • Team habits 
  • Leadership skills 
  • Talent system 

This doesn’t mean you’re expected to upend large systems to drive motivation, but rather find opportunities within these existing structures to infuse some of the performance and motive frameworks McGregor has identified. Ask yourself: How can you help your employee strike a better balance between tactical and adaptive? Can you, as a leader, check yourself when you apply indirect motives to a situation?

These are the little steps that create systematic change over time. By applying these learnings to your everyday life, you can slowly create an environment driven by play, purpose, and potential at scale. 

You can learn about measuring total motivation and the core science behind it here. And to stay up to date on the latest thought leadership on the hybrid workforce — check out upcoming events in our Building Forward webinar series and read our blog on Lauren Eskreis-Winkler's insights into cultivating grit.

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