Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

5 Better Ways to Inspire Your Team (That Don't Include Firing Someone)

A client of mine (we’ll call him Bill), was struggling with a team that lacked enthusiasm. In his words: “Energetically, we are flatter than a four-day-old soda.” His employees were falling behind—and they didn’t seem to care.

Bill was at his wit’s end trying to get them pumped up and passionate again. So, he scheduled a meeting where he planned to say that he’d better start seeing a change in attitude or he was going to “start making some changes in personnel.” But, Bill had a last-minute change of heart and canceled the meeting. He asked me to look into what might be actually going on for his team and advise him on what to do to inspire them to work up to their potential.

It’s not unusual for managers who want to motivate their employees to have at least considered Bill’s threatening approach. Because even people who hate their jobs find the prospect of losing it taps into their deepest fears and insecurities—and so, at least from the outside, it appears they’re working harder.

But, practically speaking, people who are afraid of being fired tend to either “quit in place” and shift their focus from delivering value to not getting fired, or leave for a better (and safer) job. In either case, word starts spreading that the company has a reputation for having a fear-based culture, and that’s not the kind of PR anyone wants.

So if threatening to fire your employees isn’t really a smart option, what can you do?

To begin, start by understanding the characteristics that motivate employees more than money. Daniel Pink author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us refers to three conditions that drive workplace performance. He calls them the “motivation trifecta.” They consist of:

“1. Autonomy–the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery—the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
3. Purpose—the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Add to Pink’s list the characteristics of genuineness (sincerity) and measurement (having ways to objectively track people’s success) and you’ve got a good start. Here’s how you can convert all five of these characteristics into usable leadership tactics to inspire employees to give their best.

1. Autonomy

Through interviews, I discovered that some of the people on Bill’s team felt micromanaged and untrusted. They responded by taking less and less initiative, misinterpreting his occasional critiques of their work for disapproval. Bill had thought he was inspiring them with challenges when what he had really been doing was breaking down their confidence to think and act on their own.

Invite people to use their brains. People find work interesting when they can use their creativity, discretion, and judgment to get things done. Brainless work is mind-numbingly boring and saps our ability or willingness to think. When we are bored, time drags, and so do our spirits. So, give people assignments that are challenging enough to help them stretch—and be sure to recognize what they’re doing right.

When Bill allowed his employees to take ownership over their projects, and coupled that with more praise in addition to his critiques, he built their confidence and saw an increase in engagement.

2. Mastery

Some of the junior members of Bill’s team felt as if they were in a rut, endlessly doing the same, unchallenging tasks to support team goals—with no regard for developing their own skills. Bill started mixing in more challenging assignments with straight production work, as well as incorporating coaching .

Encourage and expect people to explore and develop their talents. When people are expected to continue their own self-development, they grow, and growth feels good. But learning to push ourselves to grow is a skill as well, so it’s important that managers encourage—and provide opportunities for—their reports to commit themselves to developing mastery in some of their job skills.

3. Purpose

Bill’s team had lost sight of why their group existed and why their work was important. So, in team meetings, Bill started to provide updates on what was happening in the larger organization that they might not have been aware of, connecting current company developments to the team’s work and contributions.

Call it meaning, or understanding the spiritual “why” of work: Purpose is seeing the connection between what we do and how our work makes a positive difference in the world. Even if there are days when work is tough or long, if people know they’re contributing to something greater, they’ll feel better and more motivated.

4. Genuineness

Bill’s frustration with his team resulted in him pulling away and emotionally detaching from them. As a result, they felt like he’d checked out. Bill didn’t need to threaten his employees (or give everyone a rah-rah pep talk), they were waiting for him to share what he was frustrated about—honestly and compassionately. He needed to ask for their help to change the team’s energy level and commitment to hard work instead of trying to figure out the problem by himself. Once he started practicing being vulnerable and truthful, his employees started to take more accountability for their own energy levels and focus. Their work and attitudes improved.

Genuineness is a combination of telling the truth and being vulnerable. People work for people, not just a paycheck, and when we trust and admire the the people we work for, we feel safer and more inspired to give our best.

So, spend less time thinking about what a boss might say, and be a leader by taking the time to sincerely connect with others.

5. Measurement

It took some effort to tie each person’s work to “hard” metrics; but once we did, everyone on Bill’s team felt relieved to know what success looked like. It was more than just winning Bill’s approval: They had goals they could target and meet.

People need to see how their hard work and sweat is substantively making a difference. If purpose comes from understanding the big picture company initiatives, measurement is data on how someone’s efforts are contributing to the team’s goals. Every job, function, and role needs to have metrics attached to it that allow people to compete against themselves to improve. People who are in jobs that also have objective, data-based measurements are less likely to waste time playing politics or trying to impress their bosses. They focus more energy on doing their jobs.

Using the “I’ll fire someone” card isn’t motivational, it’s cruel. But these tactics will inspire, energize, and increase engagement, which is what every leader should be trying to do. Don’t seek to instill fear: Aim to create an environment that allows your employees to be fearless and bring their best every day.

Photo of team meeting courtesy of John Wildgoose/Getty Images.