How To Motivate Your Employees With A Simple Question

by | Jan 3, 2021 | Forbes Article

First published on

Why are my employees not taking initiative right now? Why are they not stepping up to the plate? Why are they not motivated?

If you’re a leader of people today, I’m sure you’ve thought this at some point over the past few months. I’m sure you’ve analyzed your leadership skills, or maybe you’ve made a list of possible incentives, disincentives, check-ins or ways to provide more task clarity. Maybe you’re thinking they need more supervision.

Your instinct might be to tell them what to do, give them more direction and break down their deliverables even further. If you can outline exactly what you want them to produce, they should be able to do it.

But it still doesn’t work.

What if there was a better way? What if you could figure out how to get your employees to motivate themselves? What if you could flick the switch on internal motivation? What would happen to your team, to your results, to the output that you can produce collectively?

This is the power of one simple question.

What drives your ambition?

If you can help your employees get clear on what ambition means to them, you won’t need to be the one to motivate them. You just need to expose them to the right things so they can motivate themselves.

Here’s how it works.

The definition of ambition is “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.”

In our society today, we often use the word “ambition” to describe external motivations: He wants to earn more money. She wants to climb the corporate ladder. They want to get promoted. You may even mentally classify your employees into two camps: those who are ambitious, and those who aren’t.

This is a challenge, because you’re classifying people solely based on their external motivations and not their internal ones.

The truth is, every single one of your employees has ambition. The challenge is that they may not know how to articulate it. People don’t know what that something is that they are trying to achieve. When you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the hard work and determination are not worth it. This is when your employees appear demotivated; this is when they aren’t taking initiative or are coasting along.

If you don’t know what you are trying to do or achieve, then it’s really hard to motivate yourself to put the work in to make it happen. It’s hard to take initiative if you don’t know what the goal is or you don’t know what you’re working toward. But if you can figure out what’s going to make the hard work worth it for them, what’s going to give your employees the desire to keep moving forward, then they’ll be motivated without you. You can do this by asking them one simple question: What drives your ambition?

So instead of telling them what to do or making assumptions that your employees lack ambition, drive or initiative, you can ask them what ambition means to them.

Most people won’t be able to answer this right away, but here are a few additional questions you can ask to help guide them to the ultimate question and define what ambition means to them.

First, ask them to describe a time when they thrived, felt confident and loved what they were doing.

Ask them to describe what they loved doing when they were a student.

Ask them about their best day — even a personal situation when they felt they were truly thriving.

Keep asking open-ended questions about situations where they felt like they were contributing, where they were motivated and excited about what they were doing.

Once they’ve started talking, you’ll see some common things come up — things like leadership, connecting with people, technical expertise, a sense of adventure or a challenge.

This is what drives their ambition.

Once you have the answer, you can use it to motivate them. If someone likes complex problem-solving, highlight that aspect of a project. If someone likes connecting with people, help them find ways to add that into their day. If someone thrives in the details, give them something complex to do.

It’s not always possible to feel motivated and ambitious all day long; there are absolutely menial tasks that need to get done. But if your employees can fuel their ambition for even an hour a day by doing something that is motivating to them, that motivation will transfer over to the menial tasks. They’ll be more creative. They’ll take initiative, and they’ll feel like they are working toward something.

This is not a simple, quick fix. It might take a few conversations for you to really understand what drives your employees’ ambition, but once you know this, it will become a powerful tool to motivate and manage your employees.

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