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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

What We Can Do to Build Amazing Motivation in Our Teams

How do we motivate and excite our teams to come to work? How do we get people genuinely inspired to achieve big, challenging goals?

When I wrote about what makes a high-performing team, I focused a lot on the trust and accountability principles. After all, trust is the key that unlocks breakthrough performance, and accountability was top-of-mind for my clients. Startups have enough difficulty with accountability already, let alone during a pandemic when all work gets shoved into Zoom and email.

And while I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about motivation, in team workshops I would always end up spending more time here. Turns out, most leaders really care about their teams. They want to know how to make them happy and inspired to come to work.

I’ll write more on this and link back to earlier articles, but here is the overall TAM model of high-performing teams, based on Google’s Project Aristotle and my own research:

Firstly, Don’t Forget About Trust and Accountability

The model components can’t exist in isolation. Trust, accountability, and motivation are each load-bearing walls that hold up amazing teams. They’re also mutually reinforcing of each other. Let’s recap trust and accountability.

The cornerstone of team trust, above all else, is vulnerability. It’s psychological safety. It’s that invitation for others to share their views and opinions without fear or shame. It’s the number one thing that makes a good team into a great team. But this also supports motivation. When I feel trusted and safe in my team, I like showing up and engaging. I like being a part of the family.

The cornerstone of accountability is having clear, cascading goals. There are a lot of other things that go into strong accountability, but fundamentally they all flow out of clear goals. This, too, reinforces team motivation. When I know my goals and I’m clear about how they tie into the overall plan, I’m inspired to do my work and do my best. It’s a roadmap with mile markers that makes the journey clear.

Yes, motivation is an important part of the model. But let’s not forget that everything works together. Focus first on the areas that are least developed.

1. What Matters a Little for Motivation

Financial incentives are overused and they tend to underdeliver results. I’ve noticed this in my own leadership and coaching, but I like to lean on some research that McKinsey & Company did on financial and non-financial incentives here.

Performance-based pay is the most frequently used incentive, but it’s also reported as less effective than non-financial efforts like praise and recognition.

This doesn’t mean that money doesn’t matter. People deserve to be compensated well for work done well, and they will feel the same. But I’ve had zero coaching conversations where the pay raise or the extra 0.1% equity was actually what my clients cared about. No, the money is only a symbol of some other value that we place on it. It means recognition, it means appreciation, it means validation.

This is what we need to solve for when we try to motivate our team. The mechanism or method is just how we do choose to do it so that it touches them in the most genuine, meaningful way.

2. What Matters a Lot

More important, then, are non-financial incentives. These things are what the research suggests that people value more. This is what gets closer to the core of what people show us really matters to them. And as an added benefit, they cost a lot less!

What are you doing to motivate your team, through simply your daily and weekly words and actions? As a thought starter, try thinking about the four R’s:


This is when we take the time out of our day to give someone praise and acknowledgement, whether publicly or in private. Publicly, the list of ideas here is huge. Putting someone’s name on a dashboard, sending a shout-out on the company Slack channel, calling out success stories in the weekly all-hands, etc. I think private recognition can be just as important, though. Send a quick note or give a call to tell someone you really value what they did and why. It’s a simple but powerful gesture.


This is like an award, but in this case there is some inherent value tied in. It might be a piece of company swag, a parking spot, a new desk, or even just a $10 trophy that symbolizes a job well done. Note that “non-financial” doesn’t mean “free.” Although we’re not giving money, we might award a voucher or a gift card. The gesture here is the important part.


The opportunity to lead teams or projects is a great way to incentivize high-achievers. Think about the growth that’s important to others and use this growth as a way to encourage and motivate the team. More responsibility could also mean going to a training program or being promoted, even if pay doesn’t change.


Hard work should be balanced out with some time for recovery. An extra vacation day, taking off the back half of a Friday, having the flexibility to telecommute — all good ideas to support recovery and motivation. Rest can be similar to a reward if it’s tied to performance, but note that it doesn’t need to be. Offering a day to work virtually or a day to volunteer doesn’t need to be a reward. It can be a great way to build motivation individually or as a team.

3. What Matters More Than Anything

Incentives are important, but the real magic to team motivation is deeper below the surface. Yes, we’re talking about values. The most meaningful thing that a team can do to build high motivation and engagement is this: making sure that the values of the individuals tie into the values of the team.

In Google’s Project Aristotle, this maps back to the dimensions of meaning and impact. In a team, we are always asking ourselves “does what I’m doing here really matter to the team and does it really matter to me?” The more good leaders can build a team where those answers are yes, the more that team will have an innate, internal motivation to work hard toward a goal.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to just ask everyone to come with a list of values and things that are important to them, as well as a list of what they think the team values should be. Debrief in rounds and then decide on what changes to make to ensure that everyone’s values are being honored.

When I want to get deeper on mining for individual values, I use a great exercise that’s pretty short called Values Downselect. It’s still an exercise, though, so it’s best at the front of a longer session together. Read about it here.

If I have time, or as some pre-work ahead of a team norms meeting, I’ll go even deeper. There’s an exercise that I love called the Who Am I exercise — almost every one of my coaching clients has done this at some point. Read about that one here.

Taking These Ideas into Your Teams

Three points for us to take away on the topic of team motivation. First, financial incentives matter, but they’re overused given how much they matter. Second, non-financial incentives matter more, and we can think of them in the four R’s:

  • Recognition

  • Rewards

  • Responsibility

  • Rest

Finally, the single most important thing for team motivation is how well the values of the individuals map to the values of the team.

This seems squishy and abstract, but it can be brought into focus in one simple working session. If motivation and team values are things that matter to you, make the time for them. Set aside 60 minutes to do or redo a team norms meeting around values. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be consequential.

You have a value of family? Great, let’s make this team feel more like a family to you. Or create some space so that you get to spend the most important times of day with your family. You have a value of growth? Great, let’s create opportunities to grow here, even outside of your role.

Whatever you choose to do, it’s okay. The beauty here is that taking the time to invest in team motivation is in itself motivating. The key takeaway isn’t that there are a lot of things we as leaders need to do, but that there are a lot of good options we could do. Choose a few to experiment with.

Good luck on the journey.

Originally published in The Startup

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