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Carrots and sticks, motivation and you

I have worked with many design agency owners and not one has ever said to me “I started my business because I was really keen to test out my motivational abilities!”

In my experience, the majority of you become business owners because you are deeply passionate about design, about doing great work, working for yourself, making some money and making a difference. The list goes on. And when you made that decision, you perhaps didn’t quite realise at the time what your role would entail. Suddenly, a couple of freelancers you take on become full-time staff, two then become twelve or thirty-four and before you know it, you are a leader of people!

Almost overnight you have to think about appraisals and pay structures, internal communication and team stuff and yes, motivating your people!

Some of you relish this part of your role, whilst others struggle and why wouldn’t you? If you’ve trained in design, brand strategy, design management etc, then why would you necessarily come equipped with all the confidence and makings of an inspiring leader?

It’s okay to recognise when this doesn’t come easy, the key is to be self aware, to take a look at yourself, your team and your culture. Motivation is not rocket science, but it is a choice and a commitment.

Know thyself

As a leader, you find yourself in a position that has huge power and influence. One that can have a significant impact on the day-to-day working lives of your staff. In my book, that’s a privilege. Timely praise for good work, noticing a brilliantly handled client call and saying thank you for those extra hours worked. Standing up for a member of staff or apologising when you got it wrong. These individual actions may seem slight to you, but your daily actions can make a huge difference to the motivation and ultimately the performance of your team.

Knowing your style, honing your leadership skills, increasing your emotional intelligence, all enhances your connection with, and understanding of, motivation. It does get easier!

To move

The root of the word motivation comes from motive, which in turn derives from the Latin verb ‘movere’ to move. So a motive, quite simply, is something that moves you to action. To motivate goes beyond motive because it’s something you can do to another person, ‘stimulating the interest of another’.

dreamstime_m_2456095copyMuch has been written about what motivates us and of course when asked, money is still cited as having a fundamental role to play. However it is increasingly understood that this is only one factor. Connection, meaningful relationships, communication, responsibility, career advancement, work conditions, autonomy, collaboration, happiness, stability, trust, goals, wellbeing; all of these and more, contribute to ‘stimulating the interest of another’ and to a motivating culture of strong performance where people flourish.

It’s all too easy to assume we are motivated in the same way by the same things. If you just begin with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a basic tool, it’s easy to see we are often in different places, motivated by different drivers at different stages of life. Genuine connection with your people, supported by meaningful appraisal and personal development plans are another essential part of your commitment to maximising your staffs’ potential and thus their engagement, motivation and performance.

Growth or fixed mindset?

Our wonderfully individual personalities, mindsets, strengths, values and desires create different drivers and not understanding these can cause all kinds of assumptions, misunderstandings and frustrations around performance. If you’ve not used a personality profiling tool like DiSC or MBTI, or a strengths test with your staff, I’d encourage you to do so. I remember fondly the powerful impact when I used DiSC with 17 Belgian design business leaders as part of a Leadership programme for Design Flanders – the insights and understanding gained from the profiles were transformational and literally opened up new perspectives of self overnight.


The signs of motivation include energy, determination, tenacity and strength of purpose. Connecting strongly with your company purpose at a higher strategic level as well as your team purpose at a department or project level, has a fundamental impact on a teams motivation and performance.

One of the many things I love about the design industry is that we are motivated, deep in our creative souls, by great design, creating change and making things better. This is powerful stuff and in my experience not nearly enough design business owners and team leaders take the time to engage with this. We talk about the emotional connection of a powerful brand, what about connecting emotionally with the deep held beliefs and values of your people that drive them to action?

The English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion said “every group, however casual, meets to “do” something”. So in your role as leader, make sure your purpose is clear and emotionally connecting.

How do you say it?

Positive communication has such an important role to play when it comes to motivation. Your tone, the words you choose to use, your timing and your presence. What is your typical way of responding to a situation or something you’ve just been told? Do you give authentic, enthusiastic support (Active Constructive), understated support (Passive Constructive), ignore (Passive Destructive) or do you point out the negative aspects of an event (Active Destructive) – my favourite to observe! Becoming more conscious of your choice of language and its impact on others is a crucial part of your role as leader.

Finally – Some do’s and a few don’ts

  1. The basics – water, sleep, exercise, meditation. As a leader if you’re not looking after your own needs, how can you consistently be present for and motivate your team?
  2. Purpose – have one. See Simon Sinek ‘Start with why’ or read David Hieatt’s DO book on Purpose to trigger some initial thoughts if you don’t know where to start.
  3. Clarify your values, live them daily.
  4. Be positive, I don’t mean sickly sweet fake, but do look for the positive, if you can’t find it, try harder!
  5. Humour; laugh often. Encourage play.
  6. Don’t bad mouth your clients. Sure, sometimes clients can be challenging, but don’t let the client become the common enemy in the studio, it’s unprofessional and demotivating.innovation_cs
  7. When you’ve lost a pitch look for what you’ve learned, ask for feedback, review your process, learn some more. When you’ve won a pitch, do the same.
  8. Do all that team stuff – lunches, night outs, trips to exhibitions – it works.
  9. Make time to reflect. Do it on your own and with your team.
  10. Praise, reward, recognise, celebrate and do it often.
  11. Listen well. If you can’t give your full attention in the moment then say so and reschedule.
  12. Build trust, have their backs and they’ll have yours.
  13. Get your studio environment right – lighting, air, temperature, music, colour, healthy food – make it a motivating place to be. Invest.
  14. Communicate regularly, share the important stuff. Don’t hide the finances and expect your people to know what’s going on!
  15. Be authentic, it’s okay to not know the answer in the moment. Watch Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability.
  16. Take a break, stretch often, go for a walk, breathe slower.
  17. Watch your moaning, nobody likes a moaner! We all have shit days and that’s ok, but make sure moaning isn’t your thing.
  18. Plan a team session on motivation to find out what moves your people.
  19. Recognise great work wherever you see it, building a culture of appreciation. Say thank you personally, publicly and mean it.
  20. Say good morning, make an effort. Connect regularly. Smile.
  21. And if you do all the above already, good on you! Now focus on enabling others in your team to become great leaders and hone their awareness of the benefits of motivation!

About: Emma Collins

Emma is a creative business consultant, trainer, leadership coach and DBA Expert. Previously MD at the Bristol agency Home and Chair of West of England Design Forum, Emma has spent the past decade working with design business owners and creatives helping them grow their businesses and confidence as leaders.

Image credits: © Cogs: Stephen Coburn | © Jiajing Pan | © Innovation: Rawpixelimages


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