ATD Blog

Motivating Your Managers to Want to Do What They Need to Do

Thursday, May 12, 2016

It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and the only thing you’re motivated to do is start your weekend. It’s natural for our motivation to wane from time to time. But what happens if that feeling lingers or spreads to your team and the broader organization?

Managers, like other employees, can struggle to stay motivated, resulting in lost productivity. Research from Clark University and the Center for Creative Leadership found that nearly a quarter of managers are not motivated by their work. It’s no surprise that these individuals are less satisfied with their jobs and say they’re likely to leave their organization.

Motivating and engaging managers begins with understanding and addressing the wide range of motives influencing them. What motivates one manager may fail to motivate another, and many organizations ignore the impact that different types of motivation have on a manager’s job satisfaction and turnover. Motivation types can be divided into external motivation and internal motivation.

  • External Motivation: Managers who are externally motivated work hard for recognition, financial rewards, or promotions (or perhaps even to avoid sanctions or termination). A good compensation package, along with opportunities for recognition and advancement, boosts external motivation.
  • Internal Motivation: Managers who are internally motivated are pursuing their own values, goals, and interests. They are acting in accordance with who they really are, which varies for each manager.

Internal and external motivators coexist within each person, but the ratio varies from person to person. Everyone has external motivators, such as sufficient pay to cover expenses, opportunities for recognition, or praise. Additionally, we all have internal motivators, such as feeling fulfilled by our work or believing we’re making a difference. How can organizations provide incentives to motivate all their managers?


Get External Rewards “Right” 

Productivity is negatively affected by dysfunctional reward systems, such as those that create stress and dissatisfaction by overemphasizing metrics. Similarly, unfair reward systems, in which pay and promotions are based on internal politics and personal connections rather than actual performance, can also damage managers’ commitment to the organization and increase turnover. To avoid these pitfalls, carefully craft and fairly administer your organization’s reward system:

  • Use metrics wisely. Metrics can be a valuable tool for understanding productivity and can be external motivators to those who appreciate a gauge of their performance. Consistently measure managers’ performance against criteria they can control.
  • Compensate fairly. Compensation can be a valuable tool for motivating managers if everyone is compensated fairly. As much as possible, create transparent compensation packages with defined metrics and defined career paths.
  • Promote based on performance, not connections. Promotions, titles, and even office locations can be valuable external motivators. When making these changes, ensure that they are based on contributions, rather than alliances within the organization.

Promote Internal Motivation 

While external motivation is important, it only goes so far. Internal motivation gives managers a reason to want to succeed at work. For internal motivation to thrive, managers must feel supported by their bosses and have a sense of self-direction.


Managers’ internal motivation promotes job satisfaction and organizational commitment and reduces turnover. Here are steps to simultaneously boost internal motivation while achieving organizational goals:

  • Provide a solid rationale for assignments. Managers need to know how their goals and tasks contribute to the organization’s success. When they understand the rationale behind assignments, they are more likely to see them as personally important.
  • Promote manager problem solving. You hire managers to manage, so let them. Give them a chance to investigate problems and develop solutions. This will not only develop their competence, but also give them a greater sense of ownership.
  • Give constructive feedback. Most people have a fundamental desire to grow and develop. Well-delivered, constructive feedback helps managers know what they must do to improve and increases the chance that they will personally “own” their development.
  • Provide a choice of assignments. When multiple tasks need to be accomplished, let managers choose their assignments. This improves their feeling of self-direction and personal ownership, often increasing productivity.
  • Communicate often and openly. Ask managers about their values, goals, and interests, and help them consider how they can incorporate them into their roles. For instance, a manager who is passionate about corporate environmental sustainability might be encouraged to become involved in the organization’s sustainability efforts.

Managers Motivating Employees

Managers who have unlocked their own internal motivation are likely to pay it forward to the members of their teams. The advice above is not just for managers, but for all employees in your organization. These managers are likely to boost the internal motivation of their teams, which will lead to satisfied employees who are committed to the organization.

Making It All Work

Your organization can boost the internal motivation of its managers, and ultimately enhance job attitudes and reduce costly turnover throughout the organization. While fair and competitive compensation is important, a workforce that is both internally and externally motivated is more productive. In today’s competitive market, organizations can no longer afford to offer uninspiring work, even if the pay is competitive.

About the Author

Kristin Cullen-Lester is a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research. Kristin leads CCL’s R&D work on network applications in leadership development. Her research focuses on relational aspects of leadership, including leader’s social networks and the role of organizational networks in shared leadership, complex collaboration, and implementing change across organizational boundaries as well as leadership in turbulent, changing workplaces. 

About the Author

Laura M. Graves, PhD, is a professor of management at the Graduate School of Management at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on creating organizations that facilitate the performance, development, and well-being of employees. She has published extensively on issues related to leadership, motivation, work and family integration, and diversity.

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