Motivating People – What does it really take?

When I worked in the Australian Commonwealth Public Service a few decades ago, there were very few people there who I could honestly say enjoyed their jobs. Most people did what was required and that was it. To any objective observer, the conclusion would have been that this was a workplace that suffered from a serious lack of motivation. That is not to say we did not enjoy ourselves in other ways or make good social connections. These were powerful factors in making work tolerable, but despite this, many people lacked the enthusiasm we would associate with a modern, dynamic and productive organisation.

There are few topics in Human Resources which engender so much interest and discussion as how to motivate staff and every other week, a new book or program appears offering us practical new ways to motivate our staff. In the majority of cases these are just variations of existing theories or approaches, repackaged for a new audience hungry for answers.

A simple definition of motivation is the drive which enables you to get things done and to get going. In a work sense having motivation means that you are “into” the work you are doing and on a fundamental level, like doing it. People who are motivated, have an inner power or energy which drives them on, and if properly harnessed, this can bring tremendous dividends to an organisation. The biggest question I am always asked is; how can I make people like this and is there something I can do to motivate people?

My answer to this has always been that motivation, by definition is an internal thing. To say that you can motivate someone is not really the question we should be asking. Instead, we should be looking at the ways and means required to enable a person to motivate themselves. Let me give you a very personal perspective. The best Manager I ever had in the 14 years I spent behind a Public Service desk recognised my own low level of motivation. Whilst I did the work required I never really threw my full abilities into things. This was partly a result of working in an area (logistics) that I had no longer term interest in, but also because of negative aspects of my work environment including a sense that I would not advance due to a nepotistic culture amongst some management.

My manager recognised all this but also took the time to understand some of the things that did motivate me, such as meeting new people and presenting ideas to work groups. Acting on this she arranged for me to stand in for her on some liaison trips and to represent our section on conferences. The change in me was quite profound and I found this had a flow on effect on the rest of my work. Longer term it also lead me to have the confidence to apply for a position within the Defence Training area which I subsequently won, thus beginning a new journey of personal development and enrichment.

What my manager did worked for me, and whilst this may not have been a solution for everyone, it did show how important it is for us to appreciate all the factors which may contribute to an individual finding their inner mojo.