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Business Journal

All Fired Up

What's the best way to inspire people to new heights of performance? Start by looking to their talents.

by Kathie Sorensen and Steve Crabtree

How do we motivate the associates on our team, when so many of the common levers -- such as promotional opportunities and money -- are not necessarily within our grasp to deliver? This remains one of the most common questions from managers. How can a strengths-based approach help us stimulate and inspire our team members to produce their best work?

It's a longstanding debate: Which is more important to success, talent or motivation? The problem is, framing the question in an either/or way sidesteps the most potentially fruitful consideration: What is the relationship between talent and motivation? Are the two concepts really separate? Or do they operate relative to one another?

Like the word "talent" itself, "motivation" is too broad a term to be practically useful in managing people. Because talent is a reflection of drive, however, talent and motivation can often be seen as one and the same. In fact, with many of The Gallup Organization's 34 StrengthsFinder themes -- which characterize individuals' talents -- it's easy to recognize the specific impulse to action that they produce.

Consider the unique story about an individual's motivation told by the following themes. For each, let's think about some basic questions: What is the corresponding motivation? What contribution does it make? How can it be harnessed by managers, or by the individuals themselves?

  1. Achiever is the ongoing drive to get things done, to accomplish results. Individuals strong in Achiever are strongly goal-oriented; they relate to the world by constantly reviewing their current set of desired accomplishments and pushing toward their fruition. This theme is practically the definition of motivation itself.
    • What contribution does it make? The fire never goes out in individuals characterized by the Achiever theme -- they continue to "get things done" by setting and achieving new goals.
    • As a manager, how can you better support individuals strong in the Achiever theme? Help them to set goals that are clear and attainable, or short-term milestones to be checked off in the process of working toward longer-term projects or goals. Hold up a mirror to their accomplishments and keep them close to the action.
  2. Significance is the need to be valued by others, to be recognized for contributions specific to oneself. People strong in this theme have a need to be independent; thus, they may turn down positions that pay more in favor of those that offer greater freedom and opportunities to be uniquely appreciated.
    • What contribution does it make? This theme carries with it an intense motivation to stand out from the crowd. That means the person strong in Significance is likely to reach beyond what has been done before, in order to set a new standard.
    • As a manager, how can you best support individuals strong in Significance? The drive for Significance can be channeled by providing these individuals with opportunities to make distinctive contributions, and to be recognized publicly for those contributions.
  3. Competition is the drive to win. The intensely competitive person constantly compares his/her accomplishments with those of others -- success is defined in terms of relative performance.
    • What contribution does it make? Because those strong in Competition seek external reference points, their levels of performance continually escalate as they strive to enter a "world-class" arena. Look for these individuals to constantly raise the bar of competition within the organization.
    • As a manager, how can you best support individuals strong in Competition? Their need to compete should be honored by helping these people see how well they are doing relative to their co-workers or external competitors. Contests and scores can be particularly effective at stimulating their natural drive to win.

Achiever and Significance are classified as striving themes, while Competition is an impacting theme. It may seem that these two categories are by definition motivational in nature, because they deal with the types of goals people choose for themselves, and how they position themselves in relation to these goals (for more on Gallup's StrengthsFinder taxonomy, see the previous column on the Language of Strengths). But let's consider a few strengths you might not automatically associate with motivational drive.

  • Learner: Classified as a thinking theme, this characteristic is self-explanatory -- a hunger to learn. Individuals strong in Learner are motivated by the intrinsic satisfaction they feel when that hunger is satisfied -- when the individual is exposed to new information, and has the opportunity to display mastery of it. That process is its own reward; it is a fundamental drive within the person, requiring no external reinforcement.
  • Relator and Woo: These are defined as relating themes. The need for strong positive relationships motivates individuals strong in these themes to extend themselves to others, as a means of satisfying a fundamental drive for being liked (in the case of Woo) or achieving mutually supportive, trusting relationships (in the case of Relator). For these individuals, the resulting relationships do not represent means to separate ends, but are ends in themselves -- objectives that spur them to action, and without which their psychological needs aren't met.

In fact, every theme carries with it an element of drive; intrinsic motivation is often best understood in relation to an underlying talent.

What are the take-away lessons here? First, managers should take the position that there is no such thing as an unmotivated person. Some sources of motivation we all share, such as the basic, instinctual drives to survive and procreate, but the more complex cognitive elements we have been discussing here tend to vary in intensity across individuals.

The trick for managers is to match those elements to the job for which the person has been hired, by recognizing that accompanying all forms of talent in an individual is an intrinsic drive to exercise it. Thus, making the role uniquely motivational to the person means setting them up to benefit from the expression of their natural gifts. In other words, if motivation is your concern, look to talent first.

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