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Work Better part 2 – Team Motivation

How to increase and optimise performance by use of rewards to boost motivation.

Work is tough.

The deadlines, the workloads, the staff politics, there is never enough time to get anything across the finish line without the baggage that comes with it. Having an opportunity and getting things done requires a lot of energy, focus and strict planning of every day.

Even at this pace, you need to be prepared for when things do not go according to plan.

When that new client falls through at the last minute.

When you don’t hit your quarterly goals.

When your boss gives you “constructive feedback” on a project that you’ve spent weeks perfecting.


You need to regroup, act swiftly, make the right decisions with no time to think, only act. This is when tough gets really really tough.

When you face these setbacks, and every ambitious person inevitably does – you won’t feel as motivated as you’d expected to be the way you did before. You might not even be aware that it is affecting your performance, but it most certainly is. It’s harder to get out of bed in the morning, to scrape enough energy up to go training or have drinks with friends after work.

You procrastinate on your work.

I had this often. I am an abnormally high driven and passionate entrepreneur that often takes on way more than most people will never be able to take on. My passion sometimes blinds me from reality and as a result, my ambitions are very high and I am driven to achieve them, whatever it takes. I am sure many of you reading this relates to situations like these.

In such events, I would put my head down and simply power through using whatever energy I could get my hands on and hope for better results. And yes in some cases they came out well in the end but in others I kept pushing the bar too high, causing me to fail a couple of times. But eventually, I burn out, and ever so often end up in the hospital when my body just decides enough is enough.

That was when I realised I have to win in my head first before I can win on the battlefield. After some reading, soul searching and talking to my psychology friends, I turned to behavioural psychology to learn how to get “unstuck” and perform at my highest level.

This part covers the psychology behind how behaviour is influenced by rewards and eight techniques that you can practice to get and remain motivated.


We Crave Rewards

Alexander Rothman’s theory of behaviour maintenance suggests that your ability to maintain a positive behaviour or habit is dependent on your perception of the benefits:

“Decisions regarding behavioural initiation are predicted on favourable expectations regarding future outcomes, whereas decisions regarding behavioural maintenance are predicted on perceived satisfaction with received outcomes.”

However, challenging and ambitious projects don’t always provide immediate rewards, and sometimes you may even get negative feedback for prolonged periods of time.


When we receive or achieve positive feedback, we get more motivated, and when we get more motivated, we perform better. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself.

On the other hand, when we perceive that the rewards that we are receiving from a given behaviour are insufficient, or if we receive negative feedback, we lose motivation. This lack of motivation might manifest itself as procrastination or a lack of energy. We experience this because our brains are telling us to stop investing energy into something that is not helping us.

Douglas Lisle, a psychologist who specialises in motivation, describes moods and emotions as “feedback systems” that can indicate the effectiveness of our actions. He says that anxiety is actually an important and valuable emotion:

“Anxiety is generally a useful guide — signalling us that our proposed endeavour may require our very best effort to succeed, and, in fact, may require talent beyond our current abilities. The survival value of anxiety is obvious — if you are contemplating a trek across dangerous terrain, you had better be anxious. You had better consider carefully whether this is an intelligent undertaking. And if it is, your anxiety will help to facilitate careful planning, checking and rechecking of supplies, the rehearsing of potentially needed skills, worrying about things that could go wrong, and so forth.”

Anxiety is a signal that we may need to rethink our strategy.

When you are too anxious, you won’t feel motivated or energized. The lack of motivation hinders your ability to perform, which further hinders your ability to achieve your goals.



When you’re in this negative feedback loop, it’s difficult to get up off the couch and get to work. You just want to sit around and do nothing. You can’t seem to cross items off your to-do list, even though they’ve been there for weeks. However, as you begin to take action and pick up small wins, you start feeling less stuck.



After making more progress, you’re still not quite at your peak level of performance, because there’s still some uncertainty about your ability to succeed and achieve results. You still have some degree of stress, but it’s a healthy stress that’s enough to motivate you to keep taking action. As you continue to gain momentum, you reach a state of optimal motivation and performance, before reaching a new plateau.

Failures can generally be grouped into two categories: real and imagined.

If you have ambitious goals, you will inevitably experience a real failure. You might shut down your business, take a loss on an investment, or get dumped by a partner. However, it’s far more often that your perceived failures are actually just small missteps that are moving you in the right direction. You simply need to reinterpret the feedback that you’re receiving. Some of the best decisions and direction changes in my life have come from interpreting failure in positive ways.



Techniques for Boosting Team Motivation

Whether the negative feedback you get is real or imagined, there are techniques that you can use to regain or sustain motivation during challenging times. “Imagined” failure — in the form of over-reacting to negative feedback, or lacking appreciation for positive feedback — can be solved through changing the way you think about your work and results. You can overcome “real” failure by changing your strategy.




The eight techniques below can help break a cycle of negative feedback and get you back into a positive feedback loop.

Change your thinking

More often than not, feelings of failure are merely figments of imagination. In these cases, you don’t actually need more money or more taps on your shoulders from your peers. Rather, you simply need to change the way you interpret your situation and internalise the rewards that you’re already receiving.


1. Set achievable goals.

When people have made progress towards reaching their goals they are more motivated to continue working towards them. This is because progress reduces the amount of perceived costs and gives you more confidence that you will receive benefits. Achieving a goal gives you data that indicates that your cost-benefit analysis was correct and that you are moving in the right direction. Break down big goals into smaller goals that you can achieve on a consistent basis. Your long-term goal may be to sell your company for R1 billion, but that will take years, and without some smaller wins along the way, you may lose motivation. Consider setting a weekly goal, such as shipping a new feature, or publishing a piece of content. Accomplishing shorter-term goals will keep you motivated to achieve your longer-term goals.


2. Acknowledge intangible rewards.

When you don’t have tangible rewards, such as money, to point to, you need to create them. Money can make you happier, but you reach diminishing returns once you make R750,000 per year. Your biology is more concerned with simply surviving than climbing up the hierarchy of needs and realising your full potential.

Rewards such as supporting your community or increasing your financial safety net are important, but you won’t necessarily gain a compulsory dopamine hit of motivation from it like you will from landing a new job that pays R750,000 per year, so remind yourself of the less tangible rewards that you are receiving.


3. Change your interpretation of failure.

When you fail at something, you lose motivation as your brain tells you to stop investing time and money in an opportunity that might not lead to success. However, your brain may not realise that failure is also a learning opportunity. Now that you’ve failed, you know what doesn’t work. You can try something new that’s more likely to work. When you fail, don’t identify it as a failure. Instead of telling yourself “I’m a loser,” tell yourself “I lost this time, but I’ll win in the long run.” Also, remember that there’s an element of chance in most pursuits. The loss may not have even been a result of your performance.


4. Upgrade your definition of success.

When you decide to start a business, your goal is probably to achieve profitability or perhaps to sell it. Many talented entrepreneurs have deployed sound strategies and worked hard to achieve these goals. However, there is a high degree of chance in starting a company. Sometimes even the most talented and hardworking entrepreneurs fail. You don’t know how the economy will change, what new regulations will affect your market, how consumer preferences will change, or what new competitors may enter your market. These factors, however, are largely out of your control. If you let your motivation depend on factors outside of your control, you will inevitably face setbacks. Instead, define success in terms of making good decisions and executing to the best of your abilities.


5. Increase the cost of inaction.

When you win at a video game, your brain will think that you’ve just done something beneficial, but you really haven’t. Remind yourself that climbing to the top of the World of Warcraft leaderboard is not as rewarding as getting healthier, closing your next deal, or starting that non-profit organisation that you’ve always wanted to start.

In fact, spending too much time playing video games will only make it less likely that you will achieve your most important goals. Remind yourself that inaction has a cost and try to deprive yourself of the rewards that you receive from inaction.

Now change your behaviour

Many personal development articles encourage suppressing negative emotions and forcing yourself through whatever comes your way. This way of thinking is so prevalent because it’s easier to adopt than it is to accept failure. From a psychological perspective, it’s easier to push through hardship than it is to accept that you are falling short. This is problematic because suppressing this negative feedback may cause you to avoid re-considering your strategies and priorities. You may actually need less hustle, and more strategic thinking, if you want to achieve your goals.


6. Take on a new challenge.

You may be receiving rewards, but if those rewards are not meeting your expectations given your perceived abilities, they may not be motivating. If a rocket scientist was regarded as the best surfing coach in the world, she may still not feel like she’s accomplishing enough.

People sometimes become depressed because their lives no longer require their very best efforts. Consistently operating at significantly less than your full capacity may save energy, but it often doesn’t feel good. Find an opportunity to take on a new project at work or start a side-project outside of work that challenges you.


7. Change your strategy.

If you’re unsatisfied with the results that you are achieving, take time to consider why you are not achieving sufficient rewards and what you can do to improve. It may turn out that you are working on the right project or pursuing a great opportunity, but simply need to change the way you are doing it.

For example, if your blog hasn’t grown the way you’d wanted it to, you may need to shift from writing short articles frequently to more in-depth articles, less frequently. Or, you may need to learn or improve a skill that can help you succeed, such as SEO or Facebook ads.


8. Choose the right opportunity.

The cost-benefit analysis that you ran to determine what you should be working on didn’t pan out as expected. This is common because it’s difficult to predict the future. If you determine that you are accurately measuring your results, and changing your strategy is insufficient, it may be best to shift your focus to a new and better opportunity. While this realisation may bruise your ego, it would be foolish to continue to deny the reality that you are not achieving the results that you are capable of achieving. Consider your strengths, weakness, and values, and find your next big opportunity.

Use rewards to get and stay motivated

Feedback influences your motivation and your motivation influences your ability to perform at your best. Positive rewards are a powerful source of motivation. A lack of positive rewards, or a dash of negative feedback, can reduce your motivation, and therefore your performance. Find ways to gain positive feedback to create and sustain motivation during challenging times.

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