Imagine the force of a group of highly engaged focused people, working together towards a common goal.  Imagine the innovative possibilities of a deeply creative and collaborative team.  Imagine the powerful outcomes that could be achieved by people driven every day, to work to the best of their abilities, for the common good of the company. 

Sounds like magic doesn’t it?

Businesses have long struggled with how to motivate teams to perform at a consistently high level.  Often the traditional strategies of reward and punishment – ‘the carrot and stick approach’ – are wheeled out to improve performance, ranging from financial incentives at one end of the spectrum to scorecard-type name and shame techniques at the other.

But what really works when it comes to motivating teams?

The worlds of Performance Psychology and Sports Psychology provide powerful insights into what High Performing Leaders do differently to motivate their teams.

1. Use the ‘WHY’ as the Driving Force

Finding a way to bring meaning into the life of the team is the first element of motivation.  Individual and team motivation always starts with the ‘WHY’.  The team leader must be able to clearly outline not only what the goals are, but WHY a team should work hard everyday to achieve these goals.

Often businesses can become very focused on the HOW, missing out on the power that can be generated with a meaningful WHY.

The WHY can be closely aligned to company values.  It should be one short phrase, powerful, meaningful and memorable to individual teams, in businesses of all sizes.

This is easier in some business areas than others.  When teams produce a service or a product which will enhance the lives of the users, the WHY can be straightforward.

For other areas of business, it can be harder to uncover a meaningful WHY, however it is always there if you look hard enough.  If the focus of the team is compliance – the WHY might be ‘We work hard to keep the company safe’. Or ‘We’re proud to produce a high-quality service’.

Although the leader of a team can steer it towards a WHY, ideally it needs to come from the team to ensure ownership.  It cannot be imposed.  Allowing the team space to come to a consensus about their own WHY is very important.

Put it up on the wall.

A visible WHY prompt is a guiding light amid the multitude of micro-tasks that together make up the big picture.  A leader who can passionately communicate to the team that their work is valued because each individual is part of a powerful WHY, truly understands the foundation of motivation.

2. Provide Ownership

Ownership activates very primitive parts of the brain linked to beliefs about our abilities and control over our lives.

Some leaders, out of anxiety or lack of awareness, find themselves holding too much control over projects and decisions.  Team members are much more motivated to work hard and do a good job if they are given autonomy over tasks and goals.  We generally tend to look after things that we own and take pride in their progress.  High Performing Leaders, taking what is described as an ‘Autonomy Support Approach’, strongly communicate confidence in their teams.

 Having control and ownership in work is one of the most powerful motivators.

3. Value all Roles

A well-oiled machine won’t work without all its parts, no matter how small.  Companies who ensure that every member of staff understands that they play a vital role in the path of success, appreciate how to motivate through a shared identity and pride.

I recently spoke to two middle managers who were employed by a global corporate bank.  Whilst on competitive salaries, they were disillusioned, and were looking to move jobs to a smaller business.  They were willing to take a pay cut, attracted by the ‘family feel’ of a smaller team.

‘The company is just too big.  Its hard to see what difference we are making daily’.

Her colleague agreed;

‘I never leave work at the end of the day with the satisfaction that I have produced something of meaning.  I feel like a small cog in a very big wheel’.

High Performing Leaders emphasise the importance of all roles, creating a culture where individuals feel valued and respected and motivated to do their best.

4. Take Time to Build Relationships

Team leaders who spend time getting to know their team get real results in terms of performance. Genuine interest in team members as people, not just employees, forges strong working relationships.

A significant amount of time is spent in work, and it is important that team members feel that they are recognised and valued. Spending a small amount of time regularly talking to people on our teams will pay off tenfold.  Being curious and remembering details about what is important to employees is another key feature of high performing leaders.

Creating a culture where people are encouraged to speak to each other and look out for each other, even if they don’t always agree, is very important.  Add to that a leader who is willing to show their own vulnerability – acknowledging when they don’t know what to do or that they are finding a particular task challenging, and you have a culture where members get behind shared goals.

Personal trust and positive relationships are powerful motivators.  Leaders who ask the opinion of their team members build respect and loyalty.  Leaders who don’t sugar coat the truth, even if it is difficult news, are more likely to be trusted.

When teams trust their leader, they feel safe and they are not defensive.  They are more willing to take risks, give their opinion, listen to the opinion of others and respond more positively to change and constructive criticism.

5. Celebrate Success

Our brains are hard wired to be reward seeking.  Leaders who understand how to harness the powerful effects of Dopamine, really appreciate what fuels motivation.  Dopamine is the feel-good reward chemical that is released when we achieve something that we set out to do.

Breaking large goals into small steps, that can be achieved quickly, is an important strategy behind keeping people motivated.  If we make our steps explicit, every time we achieve one, we get a small dose of Dopamine and feel good. And the brilliant thing is, reflecting on what we have achieved, after the event, will give us another small dose of lovely Dopamine.

High Performing Leaders understand this.  They don’t wait for a yearly review to tell an employee they have done a good job.  Briefly noticing and commenting on effort and achievement on a regular basis, provides the team members with regular small doses of dopamine, fuelling motivation.

The positive difference that a motivating leader can make to the performance of a team is significant.  For some, these approaches come naturally, for others they require a conscious effort, however for all the benefits are worth the effort.

Catherine McIntosh is the founder of STRIVE & THRIVE CONSULTING.  She is a Consultant, Trainer and Writer on Performance and Resilience for Teams.  Strive & Thrive provide a range of programmes Building Peak Performance and Resilience for Teams.
The High Performance Leadership Workshop is specifically designed to be delivered to teams, teaching easy ways to make lasting changes to health and wellbeing.  Contact us: