5 Ways to Motivate Better Performance

When a team feels unmotivated, members of the team are unlikely to challenge themselves or exceed expectations. Finding ways to keep employees engaged and motivated is an essential leadership skill. Dr. Alison Fragale, Mary Farley Ames Lee Scholar and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at MBA@UNC, teaches leadership courses and studies models for motivating performance. According to Fragale, managers must go beyond inspirational speeches and use a variety of strategies to energize their team. Here's a look at five different ways leaders can boost motivation.

1. Make exemplars visible.

"For individuals to be motivated, they must believe that they will succeed if they put in the effort," Fragale said. Back in the 1950s, people commonly believed it was impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes. Then in 1954, track star Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile barrier. In the following year, several more runners followed suit because Bannister's feat increased their belief that "If I train harder, I can run faster." Highlighting exceptional performers like Bannister boosts the motivation levels of a whole team.

2. Use "unbiased" sources to motivate performance.

"Inspirational appeals are less effective if they are seen as strategies for motivating performance," Fragale said. She recommends choosing an "unbiased" source such as a beneficiary of the work rather than a supervisor. An innovative study led by Adam Grant looked at callers soliciting donations from university alumni. They make repetitive calls, read from a standardized script and suffer frequent rejections, which can sap motivation. But setting up a brief meeting with a scholarship student shows callers the tangible benefits of their work. The study found that the callers who'd been exposed to the scholarship student raised almost three times more money than the callers who'd had no exposure. "Bringing people into contact with the beneficiaries of their effort affects their 'perceived impact,'" Fragale said. "Beneficiaries are viewed as more qualified than leaders to speak to the true benefit of the work."

3. Get a verbal commitment.

"If people have a positive association with desired behavior, let them persuade themselves," Fragale said. One way to do this is by getting someone to verbally agree to complete a task or goal. For instance, many restaurants and hair salons call a day or two before to confirm a reservation or appointment. Speaking to someone and getting them to verify that they're keeping that appointment reduces no shows.

4. Set goals as round numbers.

"People with performance just shy of a round number will exert more effort to improve performance than people performing just above the round number," Fragale said. For instance, an analysis of Major League Baseball stats from 1975-2008 showed that players are 4 times more likely to end the season with a batting average of .300 than .299. High school juniors are more likely to retake SATs when score is just below a round number.

5. Reframe goals to keep people motivated.

Ironically, success can sometimes be demotivating over time. Achieving a goal for the first time can be thrilling, but this sense of achievement can decline as employees lose focus and drive. To continue to produce strong results, it's sometimes necessary to reframe goals. If salespeople are no longer achieving a monthly sales goal with a certain dollar amount, a manager could reignite motivation by switching to a goal of landing a certain number of new accounts per month or offering different incentives for meeting the monthly sales goal. Studies show that changing the team composition can also sustain motivation. Keeping employees motivated is key to running a successful business and retaining top employees. By highlighting exceptional performers, using unbiased sources, gaining verbal commitments and adjusting goals, managers can effectively mobilize their team for long-term success.   Alison R. Fragale has taught or consulted on leadership and negotiation for executives in numerous organizations, including ExxonMobil, Bayer CropScience, Eastman, the National Multi-Housing Council, AvalonBay, Post Properties, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. Her research has appeared in the Academy of Management Review, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Dr. Fragale worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company, Inc. She received her Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and her B.A. in mathematics and economics from Dartmouth.