One of the greatest challenges—and achievements—for new managers is motivating their team members to give their best efforts. TechRepublic member Greg Dines, a staff information systems specialist from Sacramento, CA, e-mailed us with some concerns about the issue. Dines is a new IT manager and feels that his staff members should take more responsibility in handling their tasks. “It seems that my staff waits for me to give them guidance on where to look for answers,” Dines said. “I would like information on motivating staff to take initiative in accomplishing their technical tasks.”

Before we look at some strategies that may help Dines create a motivating environment, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Managers can’t force their staff members to be motivated to do the best they can. The art of management involves creating the conditions that are most conducive to motivating individuals. People ultimately react in a motivated way based on their own internal needs, aspirations, and self-images. Effective managers are able to tap into those internal processes through the relationships they build with subordinates and the way they shape the work environment.
  • There is no one theory or way to motivate people. Work motivation is one of the most studied issues in the management literature. The fact that motivation has been addressed so often suggests that it is a key element to the success of an organization. It also reveals the lack of consensus on what truly motivates people.
  • There is more than one way to motivate your staff to work hard and to be innovative. Effective managers will develop an understanding of the opportunities and constraints available to them in a given work environment and focus on the things they can realistically do to motivate staff members.

The motivator-hygiene theory
One theory that can be particularly helpful to a new manager in understanding work motivation is the motivator-hygiene theory developed by Frederick Herzberg during the late 1950s. Herzberg and his colleagues hypothesized that the factors that create positive attitudes toward work are different from those that create negative attitudes. Through their research, they found that workers most often indicated that factors such as sense of achievement, recognition, responsibility, and varied and interesting work were motivators. Other aspects of work, or hygiene factors, were viewed as contributing to negative attitudes toward work. These included company policies and procedures, perceived relations with supervisors, low salary, and poor working conditions.

Although this is only one of many theories that can help to explain work motivation, it is useful to new managers in suggesting ways to interact with subordinates. The theory supports the view that, in general, a mid-level manager will be more effective in motivating subordinates by addressing the content of the work or the quality of the work experience itself. There are several ways a manager can do this.

Understand your employees’ aspirations and needs
As a new manager, you want to gather as much information as possible about the things that motivate your staff members. Each person is unique and values and interests can vary. For example, some people may be motivated by the opportunity for advancement, while others may prioritize stability and consistency in their work. Once you have a good idea of what is important to people, you can look for opportunities to accommodate them. This shows that you understand what they need and are committed to helping them.

Empower your staff to feel in control of their work
New managers will often micromanage their team because they lack confidence and experience and because they want to maintain the same high standard of excellence they had as a technician. If you find yourself constantly telling people what to do, try changing your approach. Effective managers will set the ground rules and expectations for their staff members and then allow them to do their jobs. Shift your focus from making sure that specific tasks are completed correctly to establishing standards and expectations.

Never assume that people know they are appreciated
One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make is to assume that people understand how important they are to the team or organization. Find ways to acknowledge the efforts of your staff, both internally (within your group or team) and externally (with your superiors and with other groups within the organization).

Keep in mind that it is not useful to compliment or acknowledge people when it is not warranted. People can see through such efforts, and it can often reduce your credibility. You should sensitize yourself to the opportunities you do have to reinforce the good work of your team and don’t let an opportunity pass without taking advantage of it.

Empathize with team members about the negative aspects of the work
Numerous organizational conditions can have a negative impact on work motivation. Poor pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, and noisy cubicles are just a few conditions that can annoy employees. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge and empathize with the frustrations your staff members have with the realities of the job. It is not useful to dwell on negative aspects of the work, but showing an understanding of the things that affect your staff members negatively can build morale and trust and improve motivation.

Pulling it together
To illustrate these points, consider the following scenario: Kim was a new IT manager who had risen through the ranks to become a network manager for a large organization. She was motivated to do a great job as a new manager and wanted to make sure that her team was completing its tasks and responsibilities in a competent manner. After a short time, Kim became discouraged because she often felt mired in the details of her group’s work and unable to deal with larger issues.

She spoke at length with her mentor about her frustration. Her mentor questioned her about the ways she was working with individual team members and communicating her expectations to them. Her mentor suggested to Kim that she sit down with each of them and let them know what her expectations were for their work and for the overall team. She then advised Kim to ask each person how he or she would shape the work to satisfy those requirements.

After following her mentor’s advice, Kim felt that a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The focus for achieving high quality work had shifted from her to her team members. She also found that her staff seemed more satisfied with their work and their performance improved. This allowed her more time to focus on broader issues that needed attention, while empowering her team members to take responsibility for their own work.

The moral of this story is that effective managers will establish high standards and expectations for their team members and then allow them to shape their work to meet those standards and expectations.

Beyond theory
Work motivation is one of the most studied aspects of management. A variety of theories have been proposed to help explain what motivates employees to work hard and to be innovative. Unfortunately, these theories are often contradictory and in general, incomplete in truly explaining work motivation. Managers can’t force their employees to be motivated in their work, but they can encourage motivation by empowering their staff to have control over their work and acknowledging their achievements whenever appropriate.

If you’d like to read more about the work motivation theory, check out Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations by Herbert Simon (1957), The Motivation to Work by Frederick Herzberg (1959), and Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow (1962). A more recent book, Work Motivation: Theories, Issues, and Applications by Craig C. Pinder (1984), provides an outstanding summary of the issues and controversies surrounding work motivation and includes case studies to highlight important points.

“New manager” questions

Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.