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From the Employee Motivation Desk: 3 Things All Managers Have to Know

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

Great managers understand what makes teams function and they leverage this knowledge to drive performance and execution. They are always investing in the development of their employees, individually and collectively. To become talent managers and leaders, working to understand motivation is pretty darn important, and tough.

Theories aside for the moment (and you will certainly see different theories integrated below), here are three basic aspects to work motivation that everyone really does need to consider:

1. Can They or Will They?

When an employee is stuck, ask yourself the core question that drives all behavior- "Can this person do what it is I am asking them to do?"

Motivational challenges, many times, are not motivational challenges- they are skill gaps. Your reaction to a struggling employee has to be based on the right thing. If someone is unable to do something because they don’t have the skill, they need training (obvious, right?). Whether this comes from you, your L & D leader, or a partnership of both (which is awesome!), objectively, and consistently, evaluate your talent.

Managers often give stretch assignments to force a skill gap and then coach to close the gap. Motivating employees requires that managers are always checking on how people are doing and making those decisions.

However, if someone genuinely has the skill and isn’t performing... NOW we have a motivational problem. While we will get into more specific ways to motivate people in future writings, a simple best practice is to create a culture of feedback and not let unmotivated people linger without having focused discussions. If unmotivated people linger, that is no longer the employees responsibility, the manager needs to own the fact they permit it to occur.

2. Motivation is Mathematical

This brings us to the second point: understanding how motivation is constructed and deconstructed. Simply put, motivation can best be understood using simple math.

Choice x Effort x Persistence (where each variable equals 0 or 1)

You identify motivation problems when one variable is absent.


This is complex but great managers empower employees by teaching them that actions and behavior are under their control – it’s their choice. When employees understand ownership and autonomy they take charge of situations and accept responsibility for less than optimal outcomes, rather than look to throw someone under the bus.


Once employees choose to engage, they invest effort in the work. Effort is best understood as learning strategies (i.e. time management, project management, communication). Many times people disengage from projects because they use ineffective strategies (or none at all) that waste time. Invest in teaching employees different strategies to be more productive (Evernote, Dropbox and Todoist have made my life much easier).


Many times, people become demotivated and slow down or quit midstream. An obstacle (time, lack of skill, other people) often act as barriers to productivity.

Here’s a challenge: as a manager, examine motivational challenges in these terms. If you do, you can strategize how to prevent them from repeating.

3. Considering Emotionality

Motivation is personal and things that are personal are often emotional.

Managers create emotional environments that drive motivation (one way or another) not necessarily by being "nice" but by:

  • Being clear;

  • Setting expectations and goals that align vertically;

  • Having vision and purpose for their functional area (or they do the opposite which usually results in low morale and high turnover); and

  • Consistently delivering feedback.

When managers are clear and consistent, employees understand their work environment. When this happens, employee buy-in increases, they choose to engage and are more likely to persist when obstacles appear. In others words, effective managers remove the emotional roller coasters and create an emotionally stable organization that positively influences employee behavior.

Where do you stand? Consider the following questions:

  • Do you create an environment of high expectation and clarity, but also of support?

  • Do employees come to you when they are confused or make mistakes?

  • Have you created an environment where employees can take ownership or do they fear you?

Very few things are simple and direct. Hopefully, this jumping in point helps set a foundation for upcoming posts on motivation. If you have thoughts or questions or comments, please leave a comment below.

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