You’ve heard the advice that to inspire and motivate people, it helps to connect their task to a higher purpose, right? It seems to make sense. Martin Luther King motivated people to painful and degrading but effective tasks with calls to justice based on concepts of freedom and religion. Patton motivated people to risk their lives with appeals to saving the country.
What if you have a team without such lofty goals? You probably aren’t leading people to free people from oppression or save your country from Nazis. How do higher purposes help when you want the five people who report to you to finish a presentation by Friday? If you want your team to finish a report by Friday, appealing to motherhood and apple pie won’t help.
I propose a slightly different perspective to achieve the same thing:
Connect your followers’ task to a more personal purpose.
What’s the difference and why should I care?
Most purposes you’d call a purpose higher are also personal—freedom, religion, and safety certainly are—so you don’t lose anything by looking for personal values to motivate with.
The difference is in how you as a leader act and communicate to your followers.
If you want your team to finish that report by Friday, finding what each person cares about personally and connecting those things to the task will motivate them more. One might want to rise in the company to become CEO. Another might work to provide security for their family. Another might want to please their parents. Another might want independence from their parents. Those purposes might not sound as lofty as what Martin Luther King appealed to and none may care about the others’ values, but each person cares deeply about their own purpose and you can motivate them just as much. The challenge and benefit is that you have to ask and listen with compassion, empathy, and humility.
The problem with calling a value higher is that different people value things differently so what one person calls high another calls low. Searching for a purpose everyone will call high will never work out. It can work against you by moving you away from your followers trying to find something outside of them. You can make them feel like you’re imposing your values on them. People who don’t share the values you picked will feel alienated and discouraged.
Everyone has personal purposes, though. Instead of looking for purposes and values outside them, looking for purposes and values inside them forces you to talk, listen, and try to understand them. It forces you to put their purposes and values before yours while you lead them, which they will feel and which will motivate them.
Then you can have followers with different purposes and values than each others’ and yours can collaborate. Since they feel you care about something important to them, they’ll work harder than they would have otherwise.
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