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Motivation? Nah. I Raise You Belonging and Psychological Safety.

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Have you ever found yourself trying to motivate a team that is doing okay work but not creating, innovating, or performing to their potential? You might have tried to encourage individuals and connect the team with the vision but nothing changed. The team remained in a meh rut. You might have even become frustrated with a team member or two who you know were exceptional but did not show up. You might have even questioned your hiring decisions.

What if I tell you that trying to motivate a team is useless?

External motivation—being driven by social factors more than an internal desire—may yield some short-term results but putters out. The social pressures to perform may lead to seeking perfectionism for external validation and to avoid the shame of feeling rejected. The perfectionism/shame coin is unhealthy (Brown). Team members might avoid the vulnerability required to suggest new ideas, for fear of rejection. They might only suggest new ideas when they are confident they can nail them. The creative problem-solving idea you need, or its precursor, may be hidden in someone's mind because the holder is not sure it is safe to share it.

How can you inspire motivation?

Through belonging and psychological safety.

Good leadership can foster the conditions for productive motivation by cultivating a sense of belonging and psychological safety. It starts with the leader creating meaningful connections so that team members know they are seen and valued (Brown), and fostering high trust (Feltman). A sense of belonging and trust reduces the feeling of social threat and enables the higher-order thinking and communication that bring about the great and bad ideas needed for innovation. Trust-building behaviors trigger the neurophysiology that calms down the part of the nervous system that reacts with distrust (Kirsch et al., Uvnas-Moberg). The reduced threat allows enhanced critical analysis, creativity, and verbal communication which enable performance and problem-solving. Team members will then be more likely to be internally motivated to ideate, create, and collaborate.

I know this from experience.

In a text conversation with John Combellick, founder of enACT Design, I remembered a time early in my leadership practice when I felt stuck, unable to motivate a team. I tried clear communication, external rewards, and various other methods with inconsistent results. Conversely, I led two particularly high-performing teams which were spectacular. People were fired up and creative. They threw spaghetti at the wall without overthinking, challenged each other, and delivered bottom-line impacting results while supercharging their careers. The difference: intentionally cultivating a sense of belonging and psychological safety.

It is not about motivation. A strong leadership practice that cultivates belonging and psychological safety encourages people to tap into their intrinsic motivation, enabling creativity, collaboration, and high performance.


enACT Design (John Combellick)

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