Whether you manage a team of 2 or 1000, motivating employees is the key to successful leadership. The way you acknowledge people can impact your relationships with them, especially in terms of building trust and social bonds. Although most of us know that motivation at work is crucial and we can find tons of motivational quotes from great leaders, it’s not clear how we are supposed to actually do it.
“Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”Dwight Eisenhower
There is a lot of wisdom and inspiration in that sentence, but no suggestions as to how to motivate? Knowing you should give praise and actually doing it are two different things. Here are some tips on how you should motivate those around you.
Pick something that can be improved
Compliments work not only for employees who do well but also for those who are underperformers. It’s like with kids. If a child throws a ball, a parent shouldn’t comment with “Oh, that was lousy. You can do better”. That sort of a statement can demotivate and make a kid feel weak. It’s better to say “Wow, sweetie. That was great! Good job.”, which will motivate the kid to do more.
The same strategy works for adults. If your teammate struggles to be a top performer, you should find his weak point in order to work on it. Let’s say one of the software engineers is rather chaotic and sometimes misses his deadlines.
You should focus on that attribute and compliment him each time he manages to actually deliver everything on time. That’s an easy but powerful approach which can help you turn an underperformer into a motivated performer.
Be positive frequently
If you compliment people once in a blue moon, they can think you do it with a purpose, like you have a hidden agenda. Maybe you want to achieve something with that compliment. Maybe you will ask them to work overtime or do some extra work. There is a fair chance that a rare expression of praise won’t be taken as something positive but rather something sleazy. If you want to stay natural, compliment people on a weekly or even daily basis.
Academic research  conducted by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy proved that positivity has quite an impact on team’s performance. In order to get the best results with your team you should deliver more positive feedback over the negative comments. The ideal ratio is 5:1.
In their research, Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy gathered 60 teams within a large company and measured the effectiveness of their work, which was then analyzed in terms of financial performance and customer satisfaction. They found that the teams which had a 5:1 praise to criticism ratio significantly outperformed the negative teams. Those who received positive comments, like “great idea” or “I agree with you”, performed much better than those who were provided with negative or sarcastic feedback.
A simple comment, such as “good job”, is not enough and it won’t necessarily result in higher motivation. If you want to show appreciation, you need to be specific with your compliments. You should be exact in expressing what you appreciate. Instead of using a generic “good job”, think for a while and say something that will be valuable to the other person, for instance:
“Your last presentation was great! Thanks to your meaningful arguments we got the approval for our next project and the CEO commends our efforts. Good job!”
Why is the longer version better? First of all, it’s not so plain and it sounds like you really care about someone’s work. Too generic compliment can be seen as insincere. And you don’t want to be seen as fake because then your words won’t mean anything at all.
There is also another value of this approach. By highlighting a specific accomplishment you make your employee aware of what kind of actions are worth taking in the future. As I’ve explained in my previous article about praising at work, dopamine is addictive. Once you get it, you want it more. That means your employee will know what to do next time in order to get more appreciation from you. He will be aware of how he should behave to get more compliments. The more specific you are with your compliments, the more accurate steps he will take next time.
Mention the impact
Recognition makes people feel good about their work. That’s for sure. But don’t forget about the bigger picture. The purpose of work. Showing the meaning and purpose can have a huge impact on motivation.
A study  conducted by Adam Grant is worth mentioning here. He and his colleagues studied the reactions of call center employees who were raising money for a university. The callers who had a chance to understand the significance of their work had much higher performance levels as compared to those who weren’t given that opportunity. They spent 142% more time talking on the phone and they got 171% higher revenue.
While leading a team, keep in mind that knowing the higher purpose will be beneficial. It’s you who should remind your team how their work impacts others. There is a huge difference between “what” and “why”. It’s not enough to say that the work is done perfectly fine. Include “why” and list the benefits of their work:
“Thanks to your hard work we’ve managed to win the bid! And do you know what that means? It means that next year we’ll start a long-term project and we’ll hire 30 new people.”
This concept is also strongly promoted by Simon Sinek , the author of the best selling book, entitled “Starts with why”. Sinek believes that leaders who had the biggest influence always started with the understanding why. Next time you praise someone at work include that significant component in your compliment.
Go public if necessary
There are a couple of options as to where praise should be given. You can do it behind closed doors while having a one-to-one meeting, in an email or even via skype. But you can also do it in front of others. Which one is better? As usual, it depends.
By praising someone in public you can have an impact on other teammates. You can show that great work is widely appreciated and noticed by other people in the organization. Moreover, this way lets a hard worker shine in front of the whole team. That’s especially powerful and motivating to someone who works behind the scenes and doesn’t feel recognized there.
But keep in mind that not everyone likes to be honored publicly. Some people can feel overwhelmed by that. You’d be better off complimenting such employees during one-to-one meetings where you can have more comfortable environment. You should use the right kind of praise for each of your team members.
Giving praise is an inexpensive gift which works for teammates as well as for leaders. It costs you almost nothing, except maybe just a little time and effort. I recommend you use the above-mentioned suggestions to make sure your compliments are sincere and motivational. Show people that you really care about them and their effort.
 Losada, Marcial & Heaphy, Emily. (2004). The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business TeamsA Nonlinear Dynamics Model. American Behavioral Scientist – AMER BEHAV SCI. 47. 740-765. 10.1177/0002764203260208.
 Adam Grant. (2014). Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Penguin Books.
 Simon Sinek. (2011). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Portfolio.