Motivating your team was a challenge for many, even before the global crisis turned everything upside down. Two years into this climate of stress and uncertainty turned a challenge into a Herculean task.

I recently talked to a team leader whose corporation was going through a merger.  She confessed that she dreads update meetings because she does not know what to say to her team anymore.

There seem to be no guarantees, and people are tired of Zoom meetings and pep talks that are mostly meaningless. 

What are the three ingredients of employee motivation? 

So, here are some psychological insights for all the managers who feel like their job just got ten times harder. Starting from the self-determination theory (STD), specialists have identified three major psychological needs that have to be met to ensure employee motivation. 

They are: 

1. Connection 

You’ve probably heard the phrase “we are like a family here” in corporate contexts. While it may sound like an exaggeration, employees need to feel like they belong in their teams and subsequently in the organization. 

They need to know that they are acknowledged and valued. Of course, this isn’t news to managers. It is, however, harder to demonstrate in turbulent times. There are a few things that you can do as a leader to build connection:

  • Know your team members,  even if you have a lot on your plate and time is scarce, make it a point to have one-on-one (even brief ones) meetings to touch base with everyone in the team;
  • Validate the team members’ emotions — ignoring the entire climate of uncertainty and apprehension is a recipe for demotivated and increasingly worried employees;
  • When there are difficult situations, talk to all involved, get their feedback, and see what possible resolutions they see. Pulling together to overcome obstacles is a great way to build trust and team spirit;
  • Let people know you care about them, not only about the results they bring for the company;
  • Make it a point to celebrate success and acknowledge efforts; 
  • As much as you can, involve team members in decision making and explain developments when they arise seemingly out of the blue, as it often happens with mergers that are kept secret until finalized. 

Read more: The role of leaders in building trust within the organization


2. Competence 

Employees feel motivated when they can see the results of their work and have the resources to grow both personally and professionally. Research demonstrates that holding employees accountable for achievable goals can improve performance. 

Motivation science tells that trust can be built by showing trust first. Here are some ideas for fostering a sense of competence in your team and boosting motivation: 

  • Ask team members about the skills and competencies they want to develop and offer the resources to do so;
  • Set realistic goals and establish checkpoints along the way to achieving those goals;
  • Recognize the experts in your team and allow them to share their knowledge;
  • Work with the L&D department to design and implement a talent development strategy for your team;
  • Involve employees in decision-making processes. Not only will this increase their sense of self-worth, but there’s also a good chance it will lead to better or more informed decisions. 

Read more: Boosting learning outcomes through competency-based training


3. Autonomy 

Effective leaders empower employees by allowing them the freedom to make choices. They also avoid micromanaging and take on a supporting role rather than a managerial one. 

Autonomy should be encouraged without dismissing everyone’s responsibility for achieving goals. These are some of the practices that build and nurture autonomy: 

  • Encouragement and positive feedback instead of issuing demands and punishments for on-compliance —  this is a first step in ensuring employees feel respected and supported;
  • Ask people about the roles they prefer, the parts of a project they want to work on. Do your best to accommodate their preferences and make your reasons very clear when you can’t;
  • Explain the reasons behind any demands you make. People are more inclined to put in the effort and even make sacrifices if they know why. Keeping them in the loop shows respect and trust. 

Read more: 7 Ways to keep employees motivated post-pandemic


Closing thoughts 

Regardless of circumstances, we are motivated by our values and what we perceive as the best version of ourselves. By meeting the three basic needs: connection, competence, and autonomy, leaders can keep employees engaged and feeling appreciated.

People need to work for a purpose instead of just a paycheck. It’s up to their managers to build and maintain that type of professional environment. 

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