Inspiration Factor: How to Change Your Culture

Terry Barber

What is a good synonym for inspiration? You might say stimulation or influence or encouragement. But, the word that most often comes to mind is motivation.

But are motivation and inspiration the same? As leaders, we all want certain things from those who report to us. So, do we motivate them to action, or do we inspire them? Motivation provides an incentive to act a certain way—but for reasons both self-sacrificing and self-serving. A person can even be motivated out of fear, say, of a penalty—like when my dad used "corporal punishment" to "teach me a lesson." That motivated me, but I wasn’t a bit inspired.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, to inspire means to exert an exalting influence—exalting meaning raising high, as in character or power. Most books and seminars focus on motivation, encouraging the use of rewards to prod employees toward better performance. Some staff may reach for these dangling carrots—raises, promotions, various perks—but if your methodology stops at motivation, staff growth will be hit-or-miss. Not everyone can rise to the top, and even those who can, won’t do so in a stagnant culture. Why? Because a few have been motivated, but no one’s been inspired.

Some leaders are better at motivation than others, and some methods are less than inspiring: they motivate, but through manipulation or threats. "If you don’t meet this goal . . ." Even when positive results are attained this way, they will be short-lived—again, because people haven’t been inspired.

What actions make the difference between inspiring people and motivating them? And what will that mean to you, as a manager or leader?

Leaders who genuinely inspire others do so by tapping into people’s dreams—then extracting the best from them. This is what I call the "inspiration factor." And whether these leaders just have a knack for inspiring those around them, or they have developed the skill through training, trial, and error, the inspiration factor produces more positive transformations than any other leadership trait.

I didn’t always know this. The first time I was asked to supervise people, I spent much time motivating them. I’d read all the books, but I didn’t have a clue. So, to get them to achieve, I manipulated them. Each morning, like a cheerleader, I would pump them up: "We are world-changers! We love our team!" Some would get enthused—for a while. But something was missing: I wasn’t connecting to their dreams, so results were minimal, at best.

So I changed tactics. "Live up to your potential—or you’ll answer to me!" or "Produce! Perform—or I’ll find someone who will." I threatened them with dire consequences for failing to measure up, but it didn’t work. In fact, it reminds me of the motivation my dad used on me. His belt motivated me to obedience, temporarily, but I wasn’t inspired. Neither was my team.

To put a student-mentoring program on 30 high school campuses in Houston, I needed my team to perform at peak level, but to have to pump them up was exhausting. If you’ve ever had to supervise a group of people, no matter their age or gender, you know the feeling. Why can’t they just charge ahead with excellence—without all the excuses?

One young man, Ben, was challenging for me. I’d decided that it was time for a serious chat. But rather than blast him for the things I thought he was doing wrong, I asked him two questions: "How do you feel it’s going?" and "What first interested you in this job?"

"I feel disappointed at times," he said. "I’m not good at speaking, and I was hoping to use this experience to develop my public speaking skills."

The lights came on. I said, "So, if I help you develop your ability to speak in public, you’d feel more fulfilled?"

"Absolutely!" Ben said.

I never needed to have the second part of that discussion. My experience with Ben was a defining moment for me. From that exchange, I gained three insights—and these will help you be more effective at leading your team.

1. Work is only part of someone’s life. Most people have personal dreamsand ambitions beyond what you see at work. By uncovering those aspirations,you gain a great opportunity to align them with your organizational goals.

2. Notice, name, and nurture is the name of the game. Many people have just quit dreaming. They’ve settled into the day-to-day routine of their job, no longer considering their latent talent and desires. I encourage you as a team leader to take the initiative and catch them doing something with extreme passion, and affirm them for it. It’s one thing to say, "Thanks for your hard work." But to say, "I notice you have an uncanny ability" takes it to a new level. "Have you ever considered using what you know here at work?" brings it home. The skill you notice may not fit with your goals, but the positive character trait displayed in the skill is always applicable. Here’s another example: "I notice you energize people and are a great promoter. Have you ever considered management?" This exercise forces you to notice the positive traits in your team, name them, and nurture them.

3. Teachable moments are all around you. Although it’s more fun to rally around successes, you can learn things in the midst of conflict and adversity. John Wooden, the iconic coach at UCLA for 27 years, saw the game of basketball as a mere object lesson for life, yet he retired with a record of 885–203.

"If you are not making mistakes,"he’d say to his players after a bad game,"then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that any doer makes many mistakes."

Wooden’s words also relate to life beyond the court. The adversity you and your team face are teaching moments, so turn your workplace into a teaching environment about things that are bigger than what goes on between 8 and 5. That’s a sure way to inspire!

By practicing these basic principles of inspiration, you’ll move from motivating people to inspiring them.

First Published in Leadership Excellence 5/2010