For as long as I can remember, the idea of abandoning permanent employment and striking out on one’s own has been a popular topic in water cooler conversations among the technology folks. Typically following the “they don’t get it” or “I’m working for a moron” kind of an assertion, the daydreams of not giving a proverbial rodent’s derriere (I never understood this saying… who’d want it?) and the alluring but exaggerated virtues of tax advantages have driven more than one IT staffer to salivate on the job.

Some moved past daydreaming and became contractors. These folks make a good living and are used to moving on to another gig every few months. Others have left their full-time job and built a viable business – a consultancy, a development shop or just something altogether different.

The economic tribulations and the shrinking pool of employment opportunities of the past three years have led to a couple of different phenomena. There is the forced entrepreneurship by the people who were pushed out of permanent employment and couldn’t find a job. Out comes the Nana’s recipe book and yet another cake shop on the street. Or another “social media expert.”

Then, there’s the opposite. With the economy in the shape it is today, people stay on despite being miserable in their current job; putting bread on the table usually beats “I can’t stand it” hands down. According to recently published research by Mercer: “Nearly one in three (32%) U.S. workers is seriously considering leaving his or her organization at the present time, up sharply from 23% in 2005. Meanwhile, another 21% are not looking to leave but view their employers unfavorably and have rock-bottom scores on key measures of engagement, a term that describes a combination of an employee’s loyalty, commitment and motivation.”

If you’re a leader in charge of people, project these results onto your own group, department or company, and reflect. If you haven’t cringed, you yourself have probably checked out. Clearly, it’s impossible to conduct business successfully in these circumstances.

Is there anything you could do to fix it?

It turns out that you can. I’ll show you how to create a dynamic, exciting, motivating environment in an otherwise unexciting, underperforming or stodgy organization. Think of it as of a lush oasis in the dustiest of deserts.

What motivates?

The study of the forces behind human motivation has occupied the minds of great many thinkers. From the original work of Maslow, McGregor and Herzberg to the recent not-so-original but popular interpretations, the subject hasn’t neglected.

Motivation is intrinsic. It varies from individual to individual and what motivates one person would not move another. There are some commonalities, though:

  • Money is never a motivator. However, lack of money is a demotivator.
  • People are motivated by applying their abilities to the fullest. Underutilization is a demotivator.
  • Most are motivated by work that creates tangible results, especially if those results are born out of innovation, a new approach or a great idea.
  • Being engaged in decision making, especially around the choices of how to do work, is a great motivator. Being told how to do it, which is far too common, will at best yield mere compliance.
  • People are motivated by doing work that aligns with their values and beliefs.
  • Too much stress petrifies. Too little stress leads to sloth, procrastination and the sense of entitlement.

Necessary conditions

Three conditions must be met for you to be successful at motivating your team:

  • You are a leader formally in charge of a group of people of any size. You may be successful if you are attempting it as an individual contributor; it is just that the scope of impact will be limited to one person – you.
  • You are not averse to the business or the business practices of the organization. This is very important. I once knew a woman employed by a military contractor. She was torn between the need to provide for the family and the misalignment of her personal beliefs with the business of her employer.
  • You have a reasonably good relationship with your immediate superior that allows for some latitude in how you structure your team and its work.

Twenty things to start doing right away

  1. Be enthusiastic.
  2. Think big. Act on big and small opportunities alike.
  3. Learn to translate aspirations, needs and vision of the broader organization into tangible results you can deliver or facilitate.
  4. Discover aspirations, needs, and vision even if they’re not explicitly stated. See it before everyone else does.
  5. Practice corporate entrepreneurship; determine what the right outcomes are without regard to resources you have on hand.
  6. Connect and spend time with key decision makers and strategists within your organization. Ask questions about their plans, needs and aspirations. Listen. Learn.
  7. Organize your work life so that you spend time on what’s important, not what landed on your desk. Delegate in all directions.
  8. Demand that your team members bring you solutions to problems, not the problems themselves. The former motivates and empowers them; the latter are major downers for all involved.
  9. Solicit input of your team members on strategic directions. Even the act itself is motivating, and you will see a high degree of engagement when it’s time to execute the common vision.
  10. Encourage and empower your team member to decide how to go about their work within the guidelines and expectations you define.
  11. Develop the sense of shared meaning within your team.
  12. Communicate with your team members frequently and openly. Always take the time to explain strategic decisions.
  13. Notice and reward “positive deviance” – new practices that yield superior results.
  14. Pose challenging questions to your team. Notice and reward volition to find answers.
  15. Always be on a lookout for innovation in your industry and profession.
  16. Further, be aware that really exciting breakthroughs come from the cross-application of approaches and methods from other realms.
  17. Reward results, not the time, effort and cost expended. Too often, managers believe that their job is to generate action, whereas it is to create results.
  18. Take every opportunity to promote your team within the organization. Share results, lessons learned and new practices. Utilize internal publications, town-hall meetings, newsletters and so on.
  19. Position your team members as ultimate experts within the organization. Set up mentoring and communities of practice around their expertise.
  20. Become industry experts. Take leadership positions in professional bodies. Write in professional publications.

Ten things to stop doing right away

  1. Stop lamenting about impediments, barriers, morons at the helm, lack of time and such other.
  2. Do not get hung up on details.
  3. Do not allow pessimists, doomsayers and curmudgeons near your team. They will suck the life out of you.
  4. Stop procrastination and don’t tell me you don’t have time to do this.
  5. Stop being in love with your methodology, processes and tools. Challenge them instead.
  6. Stop censoring ideas.
  7. Stop telling your people how to do their job. Instead, set expectations of results.
  8. If something is old or new, or fashionable does not make it right. Eschew fads.
  9. Stop punishing mistakes, unless they are a result of sloth or overt sloppiness.
  10. Stop limiting yourself with arbitrary timelines, goals and beliefs. Run through the finish line. Exceed your own expectations.

How will you know that you have succeeded?

  • You will be talked about.
  • You will get inquiries about vacancies on your team, internally and externally.
  • You will see your employees engaged and genuinely interested in their work.
  • You will deliver or enable exciting results.

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Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays