Explainers

What to Do When Teammates Don’t Share the Same Motivation

Individuals don’t have to share the same motivation to achieve a shared outcome, but they do need to trust that others are looking out for their interests.

When teams make a strategic shift, they sometimes experience a rift—it’s hard to know if everyone is truly onboard with new priorities. Maybe the team was inspired by a deeply personal mission, but now has to concentrate on profits to survive. Or maybe newfound financial stability means the organization has the opportunity to increase the brand’s status. Whatever the new priority, people tend to think they everyone MUST share the same motivation—that everyone should be deeply connected to profits, or mission, or the strategic concern du jour—and if people aren’t in lock-step, they should get the boot. 

This isn’t true, of course. Teams with high cognitive diversity, including different motivations, tend to outperform teams where everyone thinks the same way. So the problem isn’t really differences—it’s trust. Do we trust the other people on our team to take care of our interests, even when their main interests differ from ours? 

If there’s low trust on the team, people will be concerned about personalities, and that’s where things can feel uncomfortable. Cash-driven people will worry their counterparts aren’t sufficiently oriented to the bottom line. Power-driven folks will worry if their counterparts understand what’s needed to make an impression and build status. And of course, mission-driven people will worry about being eaten by sharks—people who only care about cash or power, and neglect the quality and caring that make the work valuable to the customer.

Even if it’s uncomfortable, you need all three to contribute to the whole. Here’s what we recommend to enhance trust and get the best outcomes:

  • Value differences of opinion. Emily Dickinson (and Selena Gomez) had it right: the heart wants what it wants. People do things for their own reasons, not for yours. Try not to speak as if the only rational thing to be concerned about is the one that motivates you.
  • Do even overs. Sit down with your team and come up with situations in which these three motivations might turn into conflicting behaviors for the people on the ground. Then get clear on exactly which behaviors you’ll prioritize when.
  • Gain influence by voicing motivations other than your own. Take the part of someone who might have a different motivation, paraphrase it, and add how it dovetails with your own priorities. “So what I think you’re saying is that we need to make sure everyone acts in accordance with the mission because it’s the right thing to do for the customer—is that right? And if we do that, we’ll also get more referrals, which will boost revenue.” Leave space for people with different motivations to correct you—the more accurately you characterize what’s important to them, the more they will trust you to honor it.
Published April 8, 2019