How can we get people to step up, take responsibility and get shit done?



This is a great question. And at the heart of the answer is the need to understand a bit more about motivation. 

There are lots of different theories about motivation, but first we need to understand the three pillars of intrinsic motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated, we complete an activity for its inherent satisfaction, rather than because of the likely consequence of the action. These three pillars are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Daniel Pink writes all about this in his book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Have people got the autonomy to do stuff? Can they master the skills that they’re using? And have they got a clear purpose about why they’re doing what they’re doing?

If people in an organisation have these three things, we start to get into intrinsic motivation territory, which is what we want to get to. We’ve got to make sure people have that in the workplace. And if they don’t, we need to find ways of enabling them to have that.

I think autonomy is the hardest one to achieve across the whole organisation. It’s often one that comes up for deskless workers. Those that work on the frontline often have little autonomy over their work – think bus drivers, for example. There is little autonomy over the bus route or shifts, so we have to find ways to give those employees more choice in other areas. In our Remotely Interested? research this came up as we looked at channels – intrusive channels like digital screens don’t give autonomy, whereas a noticeboard is there for people to choose to engage with – it’s little things like that that can make a difference.

As a leader or a knowledge worker, autonomy is easier to achieve. Those working in offices generally have more of it. The whole hybrid discussion is only relevant for people working in an office because they can now choose (to some extent) where they work. This debate isn’t relevant for anyone working in nursing, hospitality or travel, for example.

There’s a model called SPACES (Self-esteem, Purpose, Autonomy, Certainty, Equity, Social Connection), which was created by author and neuroscience expert, Hilary Scarlett and I cover it in my book Influential Internal Communication. This is a great model that helps us understand what motivates people, because it can be a mix of self-esteem, it can be autonomy, it can be different things. We must understand what motivation means for different people. If you’ve got an issue with people not stepping up, not taking responsibility, not getting stuff done, you have to understand why. What’s stopping them? Once we understand that, we can adjust how we treat them, and we can focus on the different ways that will help motivate them. But getting to the root cause of the issue is important. This leans into areas around psychological safety too so it can be a complex part of organisations.

The way people behave will often give you an indication of what motivates them… listening to individuals, watching how they respond to situations, etc, will help you identify the scale of each one for your team.

Influential Internal Communication, Jenni Field

You’ve also got to have consequences. If people aren’t getting stuff done or aren’t taking responsibility, there must be consequences. Whatever comfort level there is in the organisation, there has to be something. This is key really. If people aren’t doing what you need them to do and you aren’t managing that effectively, nothing will change. Are you being clear about expectations and what “done” looks like? If the work isn’t done, what happens? Is there a conversation to talk through what went wrong? This all requires time from the manager and is something that is often pushed to the bottom of the pile because it’s uncomfortable or because there are more pressing issues to resolve.

If I look at my own experience before I had my own company, in one organisation I remember people just didn’t turn up for meetings that were in their diaries. I emailed them all and said this was completely unacceptable. They didn’t like that at all, saying, “I’m actually really busy”. For me, this is the same as saying, “I’m so important – you’re not more important than I am”. But we’re all equal human beings and it’s not acceptable to me if people don’t turn up to a meeting without telling me. I’m quite clear on this. I held them to account for their actions. It was uncomfortable, but if I don’t tell them this isn’t OK, how will they know? It’s all about starting to take responsibility and helping people make sure they know what’s appropriate or not.

There is a great exercise we’ve started to do with teams in the workshops we run that focus on building mental resilience. We ask people to rate different factors of motivation for them – things like security, praise and promotion opportunity. What this does is tell us the different areas that are important to people and it means we can understand what might make them feel “unsafe” at work. Motivation requires a better understanding of the individual. You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to managing people or communication inside organisations. So if you’re struggling with people not getting shit done then let us know. There will be a reason and it might be a quick process to diagnose why it’s happening and what motivation levers you need to pull to change things.

Further resources: Daniel Pink’s TED conference talk: The puzzle of motivation | HBR article: Keeping your team motivated when the company is struggling | Forbes article: Keeping your team motivated during periods of business uncertainty

As part of our Reality Check research into the issues and chaos affecting their organisations and teams, we gave respondents the opportunity to ask us anything. This was a question posed by one of the respondents, which I answered personally. We will be sharing more of these throughout the year.

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