Motivating Your Team: 3 Key Principles to Engage Employees

motivating your teamMotivating your team is key to helping your employees (and your business) achieve success. After all, employee motivation correlates with productivity, retention, performance, and more. In order for leaders to effectively impact employee motivation, they need to understand what it is, how it works, and how to support it.


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That process begins with understanding the forces that drive employee motivation. While it might seem out of a managers’ control, motivation can improve—especially when you understand where it comes from. Many psychological theories help explain human motivation, but Daniel Pink’s is most relevant in the context of work.

Through this lens, we’ll explore what motivation is, where it comes from, and share recommendations to support you in motivating your team.


What drives motivation


In his book Drive, Daniel Pink takes a deep dive into the forces that drive human behavior. He goes on to explore how these concepts can help inform effective leadership at work.

Pink explains that there are two major types of human behavior: Type I and Type X. Type I behaviors are fulfilling in and of themselves. Type X behaviors are executed in pursuit of some outside reward. Other experts distinguish these behaviors as intrinsically versus extrinsically motivated actions.

When motivating your team at work, it’s best to focus on encouraging Type I behavior. According to Pink, Type I behavior is better for business. It leads to higher quality performance, more sustained motivation, and greater success in the long term. Pink outlines three primary forces that drive Type I behavior.

These are critical for leaders to keep in mind:



People need the freedom to determine what tasks they do at work, how those tasks will be executed, who they’ll work with, and when they’ll do the work.



To achieve mastery, people need to work on what Pink calls “Goldilocks tasks.” These are tasks that are neither too hard nor too easy. People must also: 

  • Subscribe to the belief that abilities are grown not given
  • Commit to deliberate practice
  • Accept that mastery can never be fully grasped



People need to feel like they are contributing to something greater than themselves.

Understanding what these three forces are is the first big step in  motivating your team. Next, you’ll need to develop clear strategies to support autonomy, mastery, and purpose at work.


How leaders can motivate employees

For each of the three motivating forces identified in Drive, leaders should be prepared with a clear strategy to support them. In reality, it’s these factors that leaders actually have the power to affect. When they’re supported appropriately, motivation will follow.


How to support autonomy

Two-way feedback is key to helping employees feel autonomous at work.

As a leader, you should invite employees to share how, when, and what they prefer to work on. Then, do your part to help them align their day-to-day job function with those preferences as best as possible. That includes communicating about:

  • What kinds of projects employees feel most fulfilled by
  • Which team members they work best with
  • What project management tactics work best for them.

Traditionally, managers and employees only communicate about these preferences during annual performance reviews. In more recent years, it’s become increasingly popular for managers and employees to check in more casually on a weekly or bi-weekly cadence.

More frequent check-ins create space for more regular, ongoing feedback. They also allow managers and direct reports to work together to establish projects and workflows to support autonomy.


How to support mastery

Motivating your team means giving employees plenty of opportunities to work on “Goldilocks tasks.” These are the tasks that are challenging enough to be stimulating, but realistic enough to be achievable.

Depending on their career goals and skill set, these tasks will be different for each employee. As with autonomy, communication is key to supporting mastery at work: the best way to find out what Goldilocks tasks are for each employee, is to ask them.

It can also be helpful to provide resources for continued education and professional development. Examples include company-sponsored lectures, tuition reimbursement, mentorship programs, and more. Providing resources for employees to gain new skills is just as important as creating opportunities to apply them.

Lastly, Pink emphasizes the importance of endorsing a growth mindset when supporting mastery at work. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that talents are static, inherent, and unchangeable. In contrast, someone with a growth mindset believes skills progress through effort. They see every challenge as a step towards improvement. Psychological studies confirm that a growth mindset yields far more favorable outcomes.


How to support purpose

A sense of purpose stems from an understanding of how individual actions fit into the bigger picture. In the context of work, that “bigger picture” is probably your company mission. Your mission should outline the high-level goal(s) that all employees are ultimately working towards.

Especially at a larger organization, it can be easy to lose sight of how one individual role contributes to big-picture change. Motivating your team means reminding employees of that connection.

Employee recognition can help accomplish this if you’re thoughtful about what you recognize employees for.

When an employee excels at work, call out how their individual actions tie back to company-wide goals. Whenever possible, try to deliver recognition in a public setting. That could be a social feed if your team is virtual, or an in-person gathering. This lets other colleagues echo the message that individual contributions fuel collective goals.

Recognition helps establish a connection between day-to-day work and the company’s larger mission. This helps employees find and maintain their purpose, which is a huge step towards motivating your team.


Motivating your team


When your strategy for supporting employee motivation aligns with the forces that drive it, the impact is huge. Focusing on autonomy, mastery, and purpose will allow you to better support employee motivation. Both your people and your company will thrive as a result.



For more tips on motivating your team to achieve success, explore our guide on Coaching Employees for High Performance.

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Published April 22, 2021 | Written By Katerina Mery