Inspiring Your People
in Difficult Times
These days, if you’re a leader of any type, you can’t simply
order people around and expect them to do what you want. They may
follow your directions, if you are watching, but once they’re left
on their own they’ll go back to doing what they think is important.
Leaders today, more than ever before, have to win people’s
cooperation. And there are two main ways of doing so: motivation and
inspiration. Although the two words are often used interchangeably,
they actually mean quite different things – depending on what you
want to achieve.
Motivation is about moving people to act in a way that
achieves a specific and immediate goal. When you’re motivating
people to do something they may not necessarily want to do, you have
to offer them something they want in return.
When coaches give their teams a pep talk during halftime,
they are using motivation. They want their players to charge back
onto the field or the court with renewed energy and focus, even
though they may be too tired or disheartened to try. Their reward?
To motivate your people:
exactly what you want them to do. Motivation is all about
getting people to take action, so don’t be vague. Avoid
generalities like, “I want everyone to do their best.” Say,
instead, “I need you to come in over the weekend so we can get
this project done on time.”
amount of time or effort that you’re asking for. It’s easier to
ask people to work late work one night or even every night for a
week than to expect them to work late indefinitely. Set an end
Share in the
sacrifice. Leaders don’t ask people to do what they themselves
aren’t willing to do. Don’t tell your people to work over the
weekend if you’ve got plans for a spa day. Roll up your sleeves
and share the load.
Appeal to their
emotions. Fear focuses people’s attention and can be an
effective motivator. (“If we don’t get this done right now,
we’ll all lose our jobs.”) But if you keep resorting to fear,
you’ll end up de-motivating people. People are also motivated
by—and prefer to be motivated by—positive emotions like
excitement, pride, a sense of belonging, and the thrill of
multiple reasons for doing what you want them to do. You can
give your own reason or the organization’s reason for requesting
the action. “If we don’t get this project completed on schedule,
we’ll lose the contract.” But the best reason of all is always
personal. It would be nice if you could give your people extra
days off or even a bonus. Or you may talk about something as
intangible as the camaraderie that comes from having achieved
something important together. But things being what they are
these days, the best you may be able to offer is the hope that
no one will lose a job.
Inspiration, on the other hand, involves changing the way
people think and feel about themselves so that they want to take
positive actions. It taps into people’s values and desires.
Commencement speakers—the best ones, at least—inspire their
audiences. They talk about the challenges the graduates will face,
either personally or collectively, and the possibilities of making a
difference. Inspiration appeals to the best aspirations of people,
and its underlying, often unspoken message is “You can become what
you want to be.” No reward is promised, other than the reward that
comes from within: the sense of personal satisfaction.
As a leader anytime you talk about values, about identity
(either the corporate identity or each person’s identity), and about
long-term goals, your intent—whether you know it or not—is to
To inspire your people:
Be the change
you want to inspire. Your reputation, your character, your
behavior will inspire people more than anything else. The only
way to call the best out of others is to expect the best from
Tell a story.
Stories don’t tell people what to do. They engage people’s
imaginations and emotions. They show people what they’re capable
of becoming or of doing.
people’s value system. Ask them to act in a way that is
consistent with the values they themselves profess.
When you’re inspiring people, you’re not telling them exactly
what to do or giving them precise directions. You’re empowering
them to be their best, trusting that they will then do the right
thing. And the right thing they do may not be what you were
expecting; it may be something beyond your wildest expectations.
People aren’t inspired by doing the ordinary or by meeting
expectations. They’re inspired by the exertion, creativity, and
sacrifice needed to exceed what they themselves thought
Motivation and inspiration aren’t the sole province of
professional speakers and preachers. They’re tools leaders use all
the time—in one-on-one conversations, in meetings, and in formal
presentations—to bring out the best in their people. It’s just a
matter of knowing the right time and the right situation.
When there’s an immediate, short-term, and specific goal that
you want your people to achieve, you need to motivate them. When you
want to shape people’s identity and their long-term aspirations and
commitments, you need to inspire them.
Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator and author of The Little Prince,
wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather
wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn
for the vast and endless sea.” Sometimes you need to do both. You
need to enlist and organize people to do a specific task—to build a
ship according to specs, on time and on budget—and sometimes you
need to activate people’s desires and stand aside. Who knows, you
may be surprised by what they do.
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