Early in my career, I made a critical mistake that’s very common, even when you’re a leader who cares and wants to motivate your team.
I discovered my mistake when Joanne handed me an envelope.
Inside was a single page. I unfolded the paper with its neat creases and found a letter, typed in three succinct paragraphs.
“David, thank you for the opportunity to volunteer, however, I would like to reevaluate my service…”
I was twenty-four years old and Joanne was one of several volunteers on a team I led. Together we served students in an after school program.
With words as clean and crisp as the onion skin she’d typed them on, Joanne told me that I was wasting her time.
But, she didn’t stop there. In those sparse paragraphs, she gave me a blueprint.
A blueprint that would transform my leadership, a key to release team members’ energy and motivation, and a secret weapon to attract top performers.
The blueprint will work for you too. With it, you have the foundation to motivate your team.
If you truly want to motivate your team, understand that everyone is a volunteer.
Every employee you lead, every director you report to, every colleague you work with.
Regardless of their pay, you can’t force people to work beyond the minimum. You can’t compel creativity. You can’t push problem-solving.
Your employees choose (often unconsciously) how they'll show up each day, especially for the hard work. How much energy will they spend? Will they will find solutions and solve problems or ignore them? Wages and salary don’t directly motivate your team and affect these choices, but leadership, culture, clear goals, and their intrinsic motivation do.
This is where many leaders fall into a trap.
It’s the same trap I’d fallen into and that Joanne highlighted in her letter.
You see, I believed that since everyone on the team was a literal volunteer, I should not set my expectations too high or hassle them about their performance. After all, I needed bodies to help, they weren’t being paid, and if I were hard on them, they’d leave, right?
As a manager, you might have found yourself reluctant to hold an employee accountable because you were worried that they’d leave. We’ve watched many leaders tolerate abusive employees and childish temper tantrums for fear they’d lose the person—who was always “too valuable to lose.”
Nonsense. That’s a trap.
When you let expectations slide, when you tolerate poor performance, when you allow abuse, you are telling everyone on your team that you don’t care.
Imagine a volunteer who contributes their time and energy, works diligently, and always strives to do their best, working alongside someone who is abusive or half-hearted in their efforts.
What will happen to your hard-working volunteer?
Answer: the same thing happens to a paid employee. They’ll lose heart, shut down, and possibly leave altogether.
And why not? You’ve told them you don’t care about them. Their work doesn’t matter. The mission isn’t important.
That’s the exact opposite of trying to motivate your team.
Joanne’s Blueprint to Motivate Your Team
In her simple, plain-spoken letter, Joanne shared some ideas I could use to set clear expectations for the volunteers and how those expectations would serve the children.
In short, we needed accountability.
If nothing changed, she explained, she would find better uses of her time.
Can your team find a better use of their time?
Joanne’s letter was a lesson in tough love. It didn’t feel good at the time.
But her message changed everything for me: She helped me understand that everyone’s a volunteer.
That everyone has a choice. That people’s time is precious. That it’s up to me to make their time on my team worthwhile.
When you don’t practice accountability, you devalue the mission, the work, and disrespect your staff.
When you hold people accountable for their work and behavior, you communicate that what they're doing matters. You demonstrate respect and value for your mission, for your work, and for your employees. That’s a blueprint to motivate your team.