Girl Scout Alum and Harvard Professor on How to Motivate Your Team

How to Motivate Your Team

Amy Edmondson

Amy Edmondson learned how goal-focused she is early in life—as a Girl Scout.

“The thing that stands out most from being a Brownie is that I loved working on the badges and the goal-directedness of it. I got so carried away!” she recalls.

In her 20s, she discovered the field of organizational behavior, which combines systems thinking and psychology. She enjoyed the convergence of these topics so much that she went on to get her PhD in the subject at Harvard University, where she’s taught at its business school for the last 25 years.

“I have been studying workplaces and, particularly, culture and climate and teamwork,” she says, all things that contribute to whether or not a group of people will meet their goals.

One thing she’s learned is that the skills that get someone to management aren’t necessarily the skills that they’ll need to use as a manager.

“I think as a new manager, the first thing you need to do is remind yourself that you’re utterly dependent on the volunteer effort of others,” she says. Read on for her best advice for new managers looking to motivate their teams to meet—and even exceed—their goals.

1. Understand that your role as a manager is a service position.

“You have been rewarded for doing well in school and individual achievement,” says Amy. “And you get in the habit of thinking of yourself as the instrument of achievement. But in the next phase of your career, others are going to be the instruments of your achievement. And now it is about helping others achieve, and it’s time to shift from thinking about oneself and how you get there [to] how they get it done. Managers are selling work, but they’re also developing others.”

“All of us in our best jobs,” she explains, “had the feeling that we were getting better.”

Being generally invested in growing the skills of the members of your team is rewarding for everyone involved.

“When people are fundamentally about themselves, everybody knows it. You do what you need to do, but you’re not going to give it your all and go above and beyond.”

2. Know that your team has a choice.

The choice of how hard people work belongs to each employee.

“You get paid, and you will keep that job if you turn in a certain level of performance. But that level might not be spectacular. So the choice between good enough and spectacular is utterly voluntary,” she explains.

“For managers, the question is, ‘How do I inspire that last bit?’ It can’t be demanded, it can’t be required, and it can’t be controlled. People give it when the work and the leader is trusted.”

3. Get to know the people who work for you.

When you become a manager, get curious about what makes other people tick as well as who your teammates are as individuals and how they work together, she suggests.

“When you’re an individual contributor, you are interested in doing a good a job and being recognized, and it’s a huge mindset shift to [ask how you can] help others be as good as they can be.”

4. Create an inspiring environment.

Most people want to be part of something larger than themselves, Amy shares.

“Identify and also refer back to a powerful purpose. Why is it important that this team and this work exists? That’s the need you are helping fill.”

Amy suggests developing a purpose for the team that feels important and that is also aspirational.

“You need to be clear that this is not something we can do in our sleep. It’s going to take all of our brain power and ingenuity to pull it off.”

5. Know that purpose is the most inspiring reward.

Money is designed to motivate excellence, Amy explains, but what it really motivates is the illusion of excellence

“Everyone wants to know what’s the best incentive system. But any incentive system can be gamed. So the real goal is to focus on purpose, to help people be intrinsically motivated," she explains.

"If all you have is money to motivate, you better have a heck of a lot, because it is never enough. The other extrinsic rewards have a downside also—when someone believes they are working for that money or the medal, it can take the joy out of the task."

6. Create a space that feels safe.

A climate of psychological safety has been shown to be vital to learning, growth, inspiration.

“Psychological safety is a workplace climate where people believe it is safe to speak up with tentative ideas, with mistakes, with concerns. That voice needs to be expected and welcome,” she says, “because people don’t naturally want to speak up and offer tentative thoughts that might make them look bad.”

“It’s hard for people to volunteer their voice when they don’t believe there’s an interest for it. The default is to hold back,” Amy explains. “Nobody ever got fired for silence.”

“When people speak up, it is absolutely crucial to respond in an appreciative way. It is risk taking when someone speaks up.”

7. Focus on asking questions.

One of the most important attributes in a manager, according to Amy, is curiosity.

“The tendency is to think that you are supposed to have the answers or be smarter [than those who work for you], and that is not going to help you very much. A good manager is not the one that has the right answers—she’s the one that has the right questions.”

“It is necessary to be forward looking—ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ or ‘Where can we go from here?’”

8. Give everyone a chance to succeed.

When you’re building a new team, you have an opportunity to carefully choose your own people. But oftentimes managers “inherit” an already existing team, which presents a separate set of challenges, especially if some members are not performing well.

“Start with the assumption that this can be turned around, that these aren’t bad or inadequate people, but people who haven’t yet been invested in enough,” she says. “You start your puzzle to solve ‘How do I motivate these people and help develop these skills?’”

9. Know when to ask for support.

Being at the top of a team may sometimes feel lonely, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone.

“There are always people whose job it is to help you grown, learn, and achieve. So you need to rely on them,” she encourages.

“The good news is that being fundamentally learning-oriented is attractive. People are drawn to others who are about the mission. Who are interested in other people. Who aren’t always about themselves. These managers are rare, and everyone wants to work for and with them.”