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Leadership and Staffing

Lab Manager Academy: Keeping Your Team Motivated

First try to understand why they do what they do.

Jeff Tobe

In these do-more-with-less downsized times, the number one question I get asked by lab professionals is, “How do we motivate our people and keep them motivated to do more?” I have thought a lot about motivation because it is not uncommon for someone to introduce me as a ‘motivational’ speaker. Something about that appellation has bothered me since I first got into professional speaking. Then it struck me one day during a presentation with a large pharma company... YOU CAN’T MOTIVATE YOUR PEOPLE!

There are 5 things that I have learned about what motivates people.


Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly. - Stephen Covey

What we have to realize is that we can give people incentives to perform better and encourage and support their efforts but, the basic motivation for their behavior must come from within. People motivate themselves. All we can do as a leader is create an environment that aids in motivating someone to do something. For example, I recently spoke to one of the administrative assistants at a large corporation here in Pittsburgh. She explained to me that her boss was a wonderful leader who kept her motivated at all times. I probed deeper and found that, in fact, this leader just understood his people’s individual likes and dislikes and structured an environment around those things that turned his people on. How can you create the environment to motivate yourself ?


This is probably the most controversial thing I share with all effective leaders. Most of you probably know someone that you feel just isn’t motivated at all. Maybe it’s one of the people with whom you just can’t find the right ‘button’ to push. Maybe it’s a co-worker with whom you have tried dangling the proverbial ‘carrot’ with no response. Actually, research indicates that all people are motivated, no matter how they’re behaving! Say, for example, Joan is working at a slow pace. Her manager may assume Joan is lazy or ‘unmotivated’. But she actually may be motivated by a desire to achieve perfection. If the task requires speed instead of perfection, Joan’s manager needs to coach her to help her adapt her behaviors, but there is no need to motivate her. Even when someone is inactive, they are still motivated. In this case, they are motivated to do nothing!


Getting down to the nitty-gritty, most people are motivated by unconscious motives most of the time. -Richard J. Mayer

Although this may seem selfish, we have to realize that self-interest is simply a question of survival for many people. Even if we can’t directly motivate others, we can better relate with people if we approach them with the desire to find out their reasons for doing what they do—or not doing what you would like them to do. In this new ‘relationship’ world in which we operate, putting yourself in your followers’ shoes will better help you understand their reasons for behaving the way they do. There is a saying that I share in all of my training: “See the world through their eyes and you’ll see the way they buy!”


Tom, a computer programmer and friend, recently received a promotion to division head. His analytical programming skills were highly touted throughout his international firm. In his new position, Tom applied the same painstaking care and deliberation to minor administrative issues as he did to his programming projects, and as a result, he was perceived as slow and often indecisive. Because of his tendency to research everything, some workers felt he didn’t trust their judgement. His strength had definitely become a limitation. When dealing with certain people, our strengths—ie. the gift of gab, the ability to analyze— may just become our limitations even though that is what motivates us on a daily basis. Our role, in this new environment, is to identify THEIR style and adapt to that.


This goes against the old follower’s credo, “Thou shalt not out talk the leader.” As I share in my books, we need to ask more questions of those who work with/for us. We have to establish (and for many it’s a case of re-establishing) our role as the seeker of information. Once we truly understand the power of controlling communication in creating a motivational environment, we can understand how we can also influence the entire process.

Many of us think we know ourselves pretty well, and yet we still are surprised by the way people react at times to the things we do or say. Our challenge is to recognize both our strengths and limitations so that we remain in control of our own motivation, particularly in those situations where we find ourselves typically uncomfortable or ineffective. We all know that we cannot change someone’s behavior unless they are willing to change it themselves. When it comes to conflict, we cannot change another’s motivation, but we can simply provide them with an environment that makes it easier to work with us. Is motivation permanent? I think Zig Ziglar, the guru of motivation, answers that best: “Of course motivation isn’t permanent. But then, neither is bathing; but it is somethin

Be sure to attend Jeff Tobe’s Lab Manager Academy webinar, “Conflict Resolution: Who Are You Dealing with Anyway?” on Wednesday, January 4th, or afterwards at