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  • Writer's pictureCentre for Association Management

The Difference Between Inspiration and Motivation

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

Post written by Tom Popmaronis, Vice President, Innovation at Massive Alliance

When it comes to getting employees to do their best work, good managers often adopt the role of a coach. They know that achieving the best results from their team members requires having someone who leads by example and provides the resources to help them do their best. As a result, many managers focus on inspiring and motivating their employees. There’s just one problem with this: Far too many assume that inspiration and motivation are essentially the same thing. Well, they aren’t. And knowing which how to leverage what makes them distinct can lead to a better chance of achieving long-term successful outcomes for your team.

Should You Master Motivation?

Motivation is consistently cited as one of the most important tools managers have for improving employee productivity. Providing external forces that encourage employees to give their best effort can make a significant difference in the workplace. Many motivating factors rely on some sort of reward. For example, a survey from Leadership Management Australia found that 79 percent of employees felt that training and career development opportunities were either “quite” or “very” important in motivating them to stay with their current company. In this case, the potential for career advancement was a powerful external motivating factor. Similarly, reward systems and recognition are often used to encourage greater productivity, while also improving retention and workplace happiness.

As Kristen Hamlin notes in a blog post for Chron, “Employers are better served to focus on rewarding employees for their actions rather than threatening punishment if they want to motivate them. Promising rewards for specific actions triggers the ‘go’ response that gets people to act. Trying to scare people into action via threats about the bad things that are going to happen if they don’t act is likely to create more fear and anxiety, which can thwart action.”

Innovation With Inspiration

While using external motivation can improve productivity and retention, quite often, these bonuses are only temporary. As soon as an employee feels they have advanced their career as far as possible within your organization, they become likelier to jump ship. To foster lasting engagement, you must do more than motivate. You must inspire.

So how does inspiration differ from motivation? A recent email conversation with Sam Taggart, founder of The D2D Experts, went a long way in clarifying the crucial differences for me. “Motivation is a push factor," he explained. "It’s an outside force that is compelling you to take action, even if you don’t necessarily want to. Inspiration, on the other hand, is more of a pull or driving force. It’s something that comes from within that gets us to proactively give our best effort. When someone is inspired, they’re with you for the long haul.”

Inspirational leadership focuses on each individual employee, while also placing great emphasis on the company’s mission and values. Inspiring managers communicate and live the company values in each interaction with an employee. They emphasize how the team’s work is making a positive impact in the world. Inspiring leaders clearly communicate expectations and pay attention to the needs of their employees. They get to know their team members on a more personal level so that their words and actions carry greater weight for those they lead. A focus on inspirational leadership helps change an employee’s internal mindset. Motivation starts to come from within as they understand how their contribution makes a difference.

Research from the American Psychological Association reveals that finding meaning in one’s work is ultimately a far greater predictor of engagement, satisfaction, career growth and decreased absenteeism than any other factor. This was even true of “undesirable” industries, such as sanitation.

Where Do Managers Need to Focus?

In reality, your greatest leadership successes won’t come by focusing exclusively on inspiration or motivation. You will need to use both to foster a successful team environment. For example, a survey from LinkedIn identified both motivating and inspirational factors as being extremely important in creating a sense of belonging among employees. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed wanted to be recognized for their accomplishments, while 46 percent wanted to feel like their company cared about them as an individual.

Ultimately, both motivation and inspiration will help your employees be happier and more satisfied with their work environment. A study by the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy found that happy workers enjoyed productivity rates 12 to 20 percent greater than a control group.

In an economy where even single-digit percentage boosts in revenue or productivity are considered a big deal, it’s clear that creating a workplace where your employees can truly thrive will have a lasting impact on your company’s profitability. Which motivating and inspirational factors you should use will likely vary from person to person. Some people respond better to motivating factors, while others will buy in completely with inspirational leadership. You must get to know your team as individuals to effectively motivate and inspire based on their individual needs.

While motivation is a good start, the most effective way to lead your team is when motivation is combined with inspiration. When you’re able to help support internal change, your team will become more driven to give their best effort and buy into your company’s vision and mission. It’s time to start inspiring and motivating your team.

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