How to Motivate A Growing Startup Team

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under culture management psychology

Coach motivating boxer in the ring

Have you ever met someone who’s highly motivated at work? Try to picture them now.

You might have a mental image of someone upbeat, someone focused on getting results and hitting deadlines, all while happily looking for proactive ways to go the extra mile.

Similarly, if I asked you to imagine a demotivated worker, you might picture someone with their head down and a cynical attitude, waiting for the clock to strike five so they can escape the office.

You’re probably picturing two quite distinct individuals — after all, there are only two types of people in this world: motivated and unmotivated. Right?

In fact, whether an individual is motivated or not isn’t just down to their personality. It also depends on the company they work for. And if you want to keep your team in the ‘motivated’ category over the long-term, read on.

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Mr. Motivator

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink discusses two varieties of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Many of the most obvious motivators are extrinsic, meaning that the incentives of behaviour are external to the person — in other words, carrots and sticks. They include:

  • Targets
  • Bonuses
  • Penalties
  • Scoreboards
  • Awards
  • Praise

According to Pink’s research, external incentives lead to increased motivation only when the job involves following a set of instructions or sticking to a routine — like a factory worker. This is because external incentives tend to narrow focus and concentrate the mind.

However, if the job involves creativity and experimenting with different possibilities, external incentives can lead to demotivation, by ‘crowding out’ the inherent joy of the job. This phenomenon is called ‘The Overjustification Effect’.

Here’s the issue: in a startup, there is no set of instructions — and you need all the creativity you can get.

If you were hoping to increase motivation by setting higher targets, it’s time to reconsider.

Luckily, there’s a second category called ‘intrinsic motivators’, in which the incentives of behaviour come from within. Pink talks about three elements of intrinsic motivation:

1 — Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives.

2 — Mastery: the urge to get better at something that matters.

3 — Purpose: the yearning to work on something larger than ourselves.

When I was studying at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the topic of motivation came up during a management class. The professor added a fourth element to Pink’s existing three:

4 — Connectedness: the need to belong to a group of people.

What can you do as a leader to cultivate someone’s internal drivers of motivation? Here are some methods you can adapt to your company, to enhance your team’s internal drive to work hard and achieve better results. 

How to Give Your Team Purpose

When people feel that what they’re doing matters, they’re more likely to go the extra mile. Here are a few ways for you to promote a sense of purpose in your company.

  • Connect goals with a higher purpose. As already mentioned, goals and targets may be necessary but they tend to narrow our focus and can inhibit the wide-ranging thinking that leads to innovative and proactive solutions. Rather than drilling the ‘what’, emphasise the ‘why’ by linking goals back to the company’s mission.

If you want to focus your team, give them a goal. If you want to motivate your team, give them a purpose.

  • Humanize the data. A modern startup is filled with numbers and algorithms. While computers run on this kind of data, humans prefer a different input: stories. Help your team to interpret data in human terms by telling a relevant story. Who are the customers behind the metrics? How does your work impact their lives? There are many ways to tell a story; why not try something creative, like taking a photograph or creating a video?
  • Give random acts of recognition. When you believe no one notices your work, it’s easy to think, ‘What’s the point?’ Recognition of hard work in the form of positive feedback, a call-out in front of the team, or a little financial reward, can be motivating. However, recognition is an extrinsic motivator . . . so there is a catch. Recognition will only trigger intrinsic motivation if it comes as a surprise. In other words, make your rewards ‘now that you’ve done X, here’s a reward of Y’, not ‘if you do X, then you’ll receive Y’.

How to Give Your Team Autonomy

When people feel in charge of their actions, they’re more likely to stay engaged with what they’re doing. Here are a few ways to instil autonomy in your team.

  • Delegate problems, not tasks. Founders that enjoy execution love to solve problems. But solving problems and delegating tasks is the very definition of micromanagement. If you want to develop autonomy you have to learn to delegate problems to your team and coach them to come up with their own solutions.
  • Encourage prototyping. Intel’s famous mantra ‘disagree and commit’ is an admirable ideal for a company that’s serious about eliminating bureaucracy. In practice, it’s pretty terrifying to give your team a licence to do anything they want. Instead, embrace the concept of a minimal viable experiment and challenge your team to test their ideas in a short period of time — say, 24 hours.
  • Kill unnecessary meetings. Another well-cited example of providing autonomy is Google’s ‘20% time’ policy in which employees can spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. If you don’t have Google’s resources (and most early-stage startups don’t), there’s another way to free up more of their time: help them to remove themselves from unnecessary meetings. And if any meeting can finish early, make sure it does.

How to Help Your Team Master Their Role

Learning a new skill is its own reward. Here are some ways to stop your team from stagnating and feel like they are improving.

  • Challenge your team to learn new skills. Use your one-on-ones to challenge your team to address their weaknesses by taking a course, finding a mentor, or taking on a learning opportunity in their work. You might also create a progression framework (Monzo’s is fantastic) to help people understand what skills are needed to take their career to the next level.
  • Reframe targets as learning quests. You need to be an optimist to start a business — after all, the odds are against you. However, if your overly-optimistic targets are never quite reached, your team will simply stop reaching. Instead, reframe targets as learning how to measure and improve a particular area. Learning is the most valuable currency in a startup.
  • Build a feedback culture. Without feedback, learning can’t happen. But I learned the hard way that feedback doesn’t happen on its own . . . it needs deliberate action. Teach your team how to give and receive feedback the right way and ensure you have the right meetings to guarantee regular feedback.

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How to Help Your Team Connect With Each Other.

Teams that feel connected are more likely to help each other when things get tough. Here are some ways to increase your team’s sense of connection.

  • Invest in team-building activities and celebrations. Team building activities like office trips, off-sites, team training, and even the office party, help to increase the connection between people by allowing them to interact in new settings and learn more about each other. Similarly, celebrating the small wins on a regular basis can have a big impact on morale.
  • Run effective team meetings. When communication is lacking, it can lead to a break down in connection. Ensure you have the right meetings in place to ensure effective communication in all directions. You can find a list of essential meetings for every founding team here.
  • Be vulnerable. Vulnerability is the key to connection. If leaders can’t be vulnerable, it’s way harder for anyone else to be either. Luckily, no-one is perfect — so every leader has the opportunity to admit what they don’t know and where they need help. Leading with vulnerability and empathy, as well as vision, will help bring the team closer together.

‘For connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.’ Brene Brown, TED talk

How Does Compensation Fit into Motivation?

There’s no denying it — if someone feels their salary isn’t adequate or equitable, it’s unlikely they are going to show up for work well-motivated and raring to go. People have to earn a living.

The key with compensation is to pay enough so you can take the issue of money off the table.

In a startup, you have two main levers of financial compensation: salary and stock options. Many companies, especially those outside of Silicon Valley, fail to implement a good stock options plan for their team. Yet the chance to own a part of the company can be incredibly motivating for someone with an entrepreneurial mindset.

Motivation Comes from Within

Creating an environment that gives your team purpose, autonomy, mastery, and connection in their job will help them feel excited about coming to work. And they will likely be more proactive — and work harder — as a result.

Founders need to keep their motivation levels high too. If you feel your motivation slipping, trying rating yourself from 0 to 10 on the four elements of intrinsic motivators. Where do you score the lowest? And what can you do to improve your situation? Because without a motivated leader, your team will find it hard to motivate themselves.


Originally published Oct 12, 2019, last updated Apr 9, 2024

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