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Different People, Different Teams, Different Motivation

There is a serendipitous quality about leadership. Just when you think you’ve mastered the art of motivating and setting expectations for people within your workplace – BAM!!! You find yourself working with an entirely different group of people. What motivated people yesterday may not motivate the group of people you are working with today. In fact, your previous strategies could induce shame and incompetence with the new group. How quickly you are able to assess a new group of people and pivot your leadership approach to adapt to the different working environment is the difference between building or losing a strong team.

Scenario – Different Motivations

She was frustrated with the responsibilities associated with her unplanned role as a pastor’s wife. Sonia discovered she was supposed to oversee the ladies’ auxiliary activity. She determined the church could best be served by a database that could track active and potential church members and told the volunteers they needed to create this database. When the volunteers refused to develop the database, she became angry. She asked them why they were volunteering if they would not do what she told them? The volunteers left. Sonia was left staring at an empty room. She was furious.

She was dumbfounded. Her employees always responded immediately to her requests. Having been a longtime volunteer leader, I could only smile with compassion. Sonia had had no experience managing volunteers. If a volunteer does not want to perform a task, they don’t. She had never experienced an insurrection.

Her staff’s work was computer-based, and they were motivated to learn new software packages as part of their professional development. Sonia had not considered that many of the women may not have been computer savvy. It’s possible they did not know how to create a database and had no desire to learn. Sonia did not recognize the need to adjust her management style. She felt skills she had honed to make her business successful would easily transfer to a church-based environment. Unfortunately, Sonia was not successful, and she lost valuable volunteers.

People who lead volunteer efforts need to persuade people that the task is important to the mission they have chosen to support. The mission of the organization is the primary motivation for volunteers to engage in the work needed to achieve the mission. Setting expectations and motivating people who receive a paycheck for their efforts is quite different from a volunteer who chooses where and when they donate their time.

Given this information what would you recommend Sonia have done differently to motivate and engage the women in the Ladies Auxiliary?


- Identify why her team of women chose to volunteer.

- Explore how they wanted to contribute.

- Discuss the goals of the church mission and what needs to be done.

- List out the tasks, needed skills, and timeline.

- Ask the women if they knew anyone else who could perform certain tasks or train a volunteer.

Whether working with employees or volunteers, effective leaders strive to motivate and engage people who work differently from them. The behaviors that drive purposeful engagement among employees within a workplace environment are the same for volunteers. People need to feel respected and believe their work is important to the organization’s goals.

Purposeful Engagement

Reflecting on the conundrum leaders ponder as they try to motivate and engage people, I look toward storytelling tools. One of my favorite Jewish holidays is Passover because the purpose is to retell the story of the Jews flight from slavery to freedom during a ritual holiday meal. What I find so intriguing is that thousands of people sit around hundreds of holiday tables to tell the same story plot, however, people interpret and engage with the story differently. The person leading the storytelling is charged to tell the story from the perspective of four children:

- The wise child asks about nuance and wants to understand the details.

- The obstinate child sees no reason to be there and needs to learn the importance of being present to share the story.

- The simple child understands the basic plot and needs the details of the story explained with kindness and patience.

- The fourth child has just begun to learn and must be taught how to ask questions.

These four perspectives are exhibited in the workplace. Granted people will embody these four different traits at different times and for different topics. For example, early in my career, I was an “expert” in my technical field and asked about minute details when new product versions were announced. I was obstinate about not wanting to go to a training class that I believed was useless. When a client needed a product that was new to me, I would research product information and ask questions. When I needed to manage my 401K, I had no understanding of finance and needed an expert to walk me through the investing basics.

When you, as a collaborative leader, address different working styles to motivate and engage the people working within your group, you will be more effective than if you assume everyone responds similarly to your preferred method.

Recognizing what motivates different people during different situations enables you to look beyond what some may consider an individual’s limitations and look toward the strengths each person brings to the team.

Negative Motivation and Workplace Behaviors

The opposite of shaming is not pampering – it is engaging.

Shame is a negative motivator. Have you heard people use fear and exclusion to motivate people? I cringe when I hear:

“If you can’t keep up, then you shouldn’t be working here.”

“You are holding the team back, figure out how to keep up or transfer out.”

“ I shouldn’t need to tell you. You should know what I want.”

I sighed deeply when one of my clients described their “high” standards and told me they were not going to mollycoddle anyone who was not able to do the work. He went on to tell me that training people to do their job was not his responsibility. At one point, he berated someone publicly about what he perceived as this person’s incompetence. This person was behaving like a bully, not a team leader.

People need to understand that the opposite of shaming is not pampering – it is engaging. Shaming behavior occurs all too often in today’s workplaces. As the team leader, when you delegate work assignments it is your responsibility to set each person’s expectations and determine that they have the appropriate resources and knowledge. People who know what is expected and how their work relates to other’s efforts become engaged and develop confidence to proactively spot problems and resolve issues.

As the team leader, when you delegate work assignments it is your responsibility to set each person’s expectations and determine they have the appropriate resources and knowledge. People who know what is expected and how their work relates to other’s efforts become engaged and develop confidence to proactively spot problems and resolve issues.

Purposeful Engagement

Purposeful engagement is important for both paid employees and volunteers. Employees want to understand how their work aligns with the organization’s goals and that their work makes a difference. What is it about their work that will help them, and the company, achieve success? What motivates employees to pursue performance excellence will vary based on experience, career plans, and opportunity. Leaders can provide effective support and guidance when they consider their staff’s workstyles.

For example, how people organize their tasks, relate to their colleagues, and manage their productivity may, or may not, synchronize well. What happens when one person prefers to start working at 7am and their partner is a night owl who doesn’t come to work until noon and stays until 8 or 9 in the evening? If workstyles clash and people have difficulty working together, you may need to weigh in on the consequences of the conflict and what accommodations each can make to create a successful partnership.

Change is constant and requires people to learn new skills and procedures. Knowing how people react and manage the stress that is part of the change process can help you streamline your change implementation strategy. Some people jump right into a new computer application figuring it out on their own. Other people are not as technically confident and may need step-by-step directions before they are comfortable. Neither learning style is bad or good; can you imagine the stress for an instruction-based learner, if the rest of the team is full of pioneers who don’t want to look at the directions? And, what if the reverse occurs and the pioneers are not provided a “sandbox” area to practice?

How often have you heard someone say, “That’s not what I meant”? Verbal, written, and body language modes are important when you (and your team) want to assure your message is received as you intended. For example, how do people prioritize communications that should be sent via email and what messages should be delivered by a phone call?


Understanding that motivations are multi-faceted gives us the opportunity to create better outcomes. Situations change, people change, and leadership strategies need to change. How do motivational priorities change for different people after a corporate reorganization such as a promotion or layoff. Significant life events such as a new baby or a major illness also can adjust a person’s workstyle and motivational priorities.

Recognizing all the factors that contribute to a person’s motivational profile is difficult. You can’t always read their mind. You can pay attention to your staff’s actions, ask questions, and listen to understand. These proactive leadership actions will help you determine how you can best motivate your staff to become purposely engaged within the business.

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