Staff motivation: core truths about raising employee engagement in the workplace

Paul Falcone

There are many books and articles available on how to motivate staff without money, how to reinvigorate weary teams in light of the ongoing changes and challenges in our competitive workplace, and how to encourage others with awe-inspiring leadership strategies and tactics. And while some of the content contained in these articles may very well work for you from time to time, the core truth is that many of these miss the most important point: motivation comes from beingness, not from doingness.

When team energy seems to flag, senior leaders often think—very reactively—what do we need to be doing differently? Or what books can we buy now that focus on ways of motivating staff? Worse, these topics often only come up in one of two key scenarios: when key performers are being lured away by head-hunters or when there’s talk of union organizing efforts. Under those two dire conditions, leaders typically flock to the tomes available on the bookstore shelf that propose bold new ideas on how to motivate and re-engage staffers who might otherwise not be “feeling the love .”

But what if the truth were that you—as the department leader or immediate supervisor—aren’t responsible for motivating your team? What if the answer lies in the fact that motivation is internal and people can only motivate themselves? If you accept those assumptions, then you’ll quickly realize that your responsibility as a leader is not to motivate others, per se, but to create an environment where people can motivate themselves. And if you can come to terms with that truism, then it’s simply a matter of understanding how to do that.

People Respect Competency, Passion, and Genuine Concern for Others in the Leaders They Choose to FollowThink of your favorite boss. How would you describe that person? Think especially about how you’d describe why that individual was your favorite boss. If you’re like most people, your answers would probably sound like this:


“Kim always made me feel special. She made me feel like I made a difference, that my opinions mattered, and that she was on my side. Further, she was very respectful of others, she listened attentively, and she practiced servant leadership—she put others’ needs ahead of her own and expected people to respond in kind. She had very high expectations, but she taught to those standards and always helped us focus on developing our skills and building our resumes.”

If you look at these descriptors in more depth, you’ll realize that everything you’ve described here focused on your ex-boss’s beingness, i.e., who she was as a person and what she stood for. You’ve described her approach to dealing with people, making you feel special and included, helping you grow professionally and personally, and expecting more of you than you sometimes expected of yourself. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing things—it’s just that when you come from a good and healthy sense of being, the things you do stem automatically from the healthy person you are.


In comparison, you probably won’t find many people who describe their favorite boss in terms of the particular things she’s done: “Wow, Kim was wonderful because she let us work remotely occasionally without telling her boss, and she brought in bagels every Friday morning to get us into a weekend mindset.“ Again, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that make others feel good about themselves or the company—it’s just that most people don’t define their favorite bosses or employment experiences this way.

A Simpler SolutionSo rather than worrying yourself silly about 101 ways to motivate your team or something similar to that, relax. Take a deep breathe and go inside to find your truth. And ask yourself a few magical questions:

  • Am I the type of boss to my team members that Kim was to me?
  • How would people describe me in terms of the leadership I provide—the structure, direction, and feedback that I offer on a day-to-day basis?
  • Do my employees feel like I know them and care for them? Do they sense honesty and transparency in my dealings with them, and would they describe me as a selfless leader who considers their needs in our day-to-day dealings?
  • Would I want to work for me?

If your answers to any of these questions is no, then you might want to rethink your approach to your role as a people leader. We all feel overwhelmed and underappreciated at times, and that’s sure to show itself in our day-to-day dealings with others. And that’s okay because we’re human and sometimes get short with one another. But what if you changed how you think about yourself in relationship to the people you supervise? What if you considered the greatest gift in the workplace to be the fact that you have an opportunity to mold and develop future leaders that will one day replace you (as you move up your own career ladder)? What if you looked to reinvent relationships with those who don’t appear to be happy with their own performance or who generate negativity and dissatisfaction? And what if you realized that the greatest gift you could give your subordinates lies in helping them realize how looking at the workplace from a standpoint of thankfulness and gratitude will make their whole work experience change forever?

What Could This Look Like in Reality?Simply put, if you care, they’ll care. If you put others’ needs ahead of your own, people will typically respond in kind. And when they don’t and they try to take advantage of your kindness, peer pressure will typically kick and fix the problem for you on its own. “Hey, don’t talk that way about Paul. He’s too good a guy and he works too hard for anyone to treat him with anything other than respect. He’s passionate about what he does and he cares about us individually—not just in terms of the work we produce. You won’t find many people on your side if you make a comment like that again.”

Further, how do you, as a true leader, address someone who appears to be disengaged, dissatisfied, or otherwise burned out or angry at work? Here’s how this leadership wisdom might reveal itself in a case like this:

You: “John, I wanted to meet with you one-on-one and in private to discuss something that I perceive but that you may not be aware of. Over the past two or three months, I’ve noticed that you’re becoming shorter with everyone. You appear to be angry and frustrated, disappointed in the company, and at times outright confrontational and loud about your experience working here. Can you see why I might perceive things that way or why others might be keeping a distance from you nowadays, or does this sound totally foreign to you?”

Employee: “I guess I can come across that way at times, but this company is so cheap. They keep taking things away and demanding more of us. They’re sitting on record amounts of cash but won’t add to headcount; our systems are totally out-of-date, we’re always announcing things at the last minute so that everything’s always urgent, and it’s just no fun around here anymore.”

You: “Much of what you’re describing I’m seeing too and there isn’t much we can do about that. But does my behaviour reflect yours? In other words, we’re seeing and experiencing the same things, but would you—or do others—describe me as someone who’s potentially angry, frustrated, and confrontational?”

Employee: “No, they don’t. It obviously doesn’t bother you as much as it bothers me.”

You: “Not necessarily. You may be interpreting too much into your response there and making some assumptions that may not accurately reflect reality. Let me share with you how I think I could help. Do I have your permission to share some constructive advice, and will you be open to what I have to say and think about it?”

Employee: “Sure.”

You: “You may have allowed yourself to get swept up in the negativity, to feed into the downside that exists in every office in every company without realizing how much you can lead the change and be part of the solution. Sure it can be frustrating, but how you define yourself in light of this challenge indicates how much you’re willing to learn and grow from it.”


“When I originally hired you, I saw someone with amazing talent. I saw someone who was passionate about what you do, someone who came aboard looking to make a difference, and someone interested in giving back to the company while building your own skills and experience. That’s the person I want back now. I want you to think about how to reinvent your relationship to this company and to your fellow team members. I want you to think about how you can come from thankfulness and appreciation rather than resentment and frustration. Most importantly, I want you to come over to my side and partner with me to make this a better experience for everyone. You carry a lot of clout and influence with your co-workers, and if they sense we’re partnering together and on the same side, it will restore harmony to the entire team. Can you make that commitment to me?”

No drama, no judgment, and no unnecessary confrontation .You’ve simply reminded your subordinate about his own talents, his unique ability to influence others, and his opportunity to reinvent himself and strengthen his reputation. In short, you’ll have demonstrated how your beingness—in this case, your patience, wisdom, and selflessness in helping your staffer reflect on how his negativity is coming across to you and others—allows others to motivate themselves by seeing the bigger picture and the view from your vantage point. The details don’t matter as there will always be workplace shortcomings and irritants due to overwhelming volume, inferior systems and processes, or personality conflicts. However, your workplace wisdom allowed this individual to rise above the action, see the broader picture, and redefine himself in light of these challenges.

Such leadership and workplace wisdom is your gift to share, your ability to positively impact others’ lives and careers, and your opportunity to give back to others in a spirit of openness and goodwill. Motivational leadership doesn’t get any better than that. Just remember that it’s who you are that counts—not necessarily what you do at any given point in time. You’ll soon realize that when you come from a spirit of selflessness, an understanding that growing and developing people is the greatest gift the workplace offers, and that teaching appreciation and thankfulness changes everything about your daily experience, you’ll create more harmony at work, get more done through your people, and develop a very loyal following of self-motivated staffers who will see you as the best boss they’ve ever had.

Reprinted with the permission of Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com), a human resources executive in Los Angeles who has held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner.  Paul is the author of a number of bestselling books published by the American Management Association, including 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire; 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems; 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees; and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @PaulFalconeHR.


You are richer than you think part 2

Eric Fraterman

In my previous blog entries I have argued about the validity of the People > Service > Profit idea, the importance of Hiring Right and the fact that often good people are stopped by bad processes or bad management.

Read More


Teamwork: 10 essential tips that most managers mis...

Leon Noon

Teamwork is essential to the success of your business. But there’s a lot more to it than describing your employees as “team members” or using clichés such as “our team is here to help you”.

Read More


Hate Firing People? Then Hire Behaviour Instead

Don Schmincke

At some point, every business owner, manager, or human resources professional has to let an employee go. It’s a fact of business everyone hates...

Read more