Motivating Team Members – Which Formula Works Best?

I was fascinated by the book  “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does.” written by Susan Fowler (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. San Francisco).

The author corroborates the notion that the ‘Carrot and Stick’ approach does not work and it is best to develop intrinsic factors to motivate people to do better. Of course, extrinsic rewards work to a point, but how far can an organization go in advancing pay, extending benefits, and offering incentives to enhance output. The fact is, motivation via bonuses, recognition as employee of the month, highest achiever, or flex time to accommodate an employee’s personal need may work in the short term. However, many studies have concluded that overall, these types of incentives do not contribute towards achieving long term goals or developing competitive advantage.

There are many theories that contribute to our understanding of motivation and we will review some of them within this paper. The question is, “How can we use the concepts within these theories in a simplistic way to achieve our organizational goals in a timely manner?”

What methodology can be found to provide the best ROI and utilize intrinsic factors, to foster greater motivation and continuous improvement for each of our employees, our teams, and our organization as a whole?

At one time, managers believed the reason motivating people didn’t work is that motivation is something an employee either has or does not have. If this were to be the case, we should segregate the two groups and develop separate action plans for each.

Other thought leaders advocate that adhering to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory gives us the answer to employee motivation. Maslow stated, once the lower basic human needs of self -sustenance and safety are satisfied, we can then motivate members to reach for their higher needs such as obtaining social acceptance, internal esteem, higher status or recognition, and finally to achieve ones’ full potential and self-fulfillment.  The questions are:

  • What and how much will it take to saturate an employee’s lower level needs?
  • How can we measure when each employee has satisfied his/her lower level needs?
  • When is it best to appeal to the upper level within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory?

Frederick Herzberg’s Motivation Hygiene Theory proposes an individual’s relationship towards work is a basic one, and an individual’s attitude towards this work can very well determine that person’s success or failure. Herzberg conducted a study investigating what people want from their jobs. Results indicated that ‘intrinsic’ factors such as achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, and growth were all related to job satisfaction.  (Organizational Behavior, Third Canadian Edition, Robbins/Langton)

Edwin Locke proposed that intentions to work toward a goal are a major source of work motivation. The ‘Goal Setting Theory’ proposes that specific and difficult goals that are deemed to be attainable, have reasonable timelines attached, and have adequate resources available, lead to strong motivation and higher performance (Organizational Behavior, Third Canadian Edition, Robbins/Langton). Thus the use of the familiar MBO (Management by Objectives) Programs have considerable merit in motivating employees to achieve set goals.

“The workplace can play an important part in either enhancing or detracting from one’s level of motivation. We become motivated or demotivated depending on the degree to which our psychological needs are satisfied. We are motivated when we perceive we have choices, when we feel what we are doing is of our own volition, when we are the source of our own actions, and when we feel we have some choice and control over the work we do and its’ outcomes.” (S. Fowler)

A powerful way to bring all of the above to fruition is to integrate Action Learning into the workplace environment.

Action Learning (AL) involves a small diverse group (4-8 persons) who come together to solve an important personal or organizational problem and learn while so doing.

At the onset, within an AL group, all members may not be motivated to perform at a high level or even at any level because they doubt the process. However, the group forms very quickly and moves to the performing stage bypassing to a great extent the stages of storming and norming as described in Tuckman’s model of group development. This is attributable to the selection of group members that have a diverse knowledge base.  Management has professed the need for each of these individuals to help solve an important and often complex problem and thus the group’s entire focus is on problem solving. Motivation rapidly develops at a high level, because in using AL the group’s task is not just to develop a problem solution, but often the group itself is involved in implementing that solution. Therefore, the motivational level of each participant is enhanced because what they are doing is specific, meaningful, attainable, relevant, and timely.

It is interesting to note, that using AL to solve important organizational problems supports the many points that Herzberg suggests are necessary to bring about employee motivation. Group members are challenged to solve a real problem. By so doing, they are helping others in the group as well as the organization as a whole. The opportunity to receive rewards exists because group members are involved in implementing the solution. Solving an important problem is an achievement and brings about recognition from management. Once the group has solved its first problem using AL the members become more comfortable with the process. This in turn gives each member more confidence in themselves which enables them to tackle more difficult problems.

There is an old expression “Responsibilities Gravitate to Persons Who Can Shoulder Them, and Power Flows to Those Who Know How”.  An Action Learning group’s ability to assume responsibility in problem solving and solution implementation does showcase the group’s capabilities.  Undertaking more complex problems resulting in breakthrough thinking and valued solutions places the AL team in a high demand position. These intrinsic factors will contribute to team members rising to the highest motivational plane.

As written by Susan Fowler, “the workplace can play an important part in either enhancing or detracting from one’s level of motivation”. When an Action Learning team assembles, the members set their own norms based on what the group agrees to adhere to. It is the group that decides what is acceptable and what is not in regard to interaction one with the other. They also follow two simple rules which along with the norms set the parameters for how the group will function.

Rule 1 – Statements will only be made in response to a question. Questions can be asked of anyone in the group not just to the problem presenter.

Rule 2 – The AL Coach can intervene at any time when there is an opportunity for learning, and to manage the time established for the AL set.

The group has choices on how they wish to approach the problem. Through the use of the questioning process they determine the ‘real cause’ of the problem. Team members understand they are in control and they alone can decide how they wish to move forward.

They are a source of their own actions and its outcomes.

The workplace can and will enhance and maintain a high level of motivation within employees when Action Learning is incorporated as part of:

  • Organizational problem solving
  • Team and leadership development
  • Building trust between members and management
  • Decision making
  • Desire to improve one’s competitive advantage


How can we help you and your organization?

Contact me to arrange a demonstration of Action Learning held at your office, with your team, working to solve one of your important problems.

Philip Cohen MBA, PALC, CITP® ǀ FIBP®

Give us one day.  We’ll change the way you work – forever!

Application of Action Learning in a Large Company

The following article details an example of

Application of Action Learning in a Large Company


About MSI Computer (Shenzhen)

Micro-Star International Co., Ltd (MSI, TWSE: 2377) is a Taiwanese multinational information technology corporation headquartered in New Taipei City, Taiwan. It designs, develops and provides computer hardware, related products and services.

Established in August 1986 by its 5 founders, MSI first started its business in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Later, it expanded to China, setting up its Production Plant in Baoan, Shenzhen in 2000 and establishing its research and development facilities in Kunshan in 2001. It also provides global warranty service in North America, Central/South America, Asia, Australia and Europe. MSI Computer (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd., established in 2000, is the main production site of the MSI group. The main products of this 200.000 m2 and 6000 employees plant includes motherboards, graphic cards, all-in-one PCs, barebone computers, servers, IPCs, multimedia peripherals in-vehicle infotainment solutions, smart cleaning robots, panoramic Wi-Fi cameras, etc. In addition to ISO9001, ISO14000, and OHSAS 18001 certifications, MSI Computer (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd. also received the prize of Shenzhen Foreign-Invested Advanced Technology Enterprise, achieved Shenzhen Baoan District Quality Award, and is officially certified as National High-Tech Enterprise since 2009.

Action Learning (AL) Introduced to MSI (ShenZhen)

The Taiwanese company MSI Shenzhen first learned about AL in 2010 when Wayne Chien, the HR A.V.P of MSI, introduced AL methodology to assist with a single problem it was facing. In late 2012, when they hit a wall with management and leadership issues, they started a process that brought AL deeply into the organizational culture.

Joe CM Lee, VP of MSI (Shenzhen) and also the Plant General Manager, championed this adoption of AL and became the noteworthy role model of AL in the organization.

He says,

“Before AL, came into our company we were facing:

  1. continuous differentiation in the product line
  2. uncertainty and complexity in projecting future business trends.

To operate effectively, we needed:

  • a lot of high-level communication
  • to recognize the uncertainty in our future business paths and development

Yet, increasingly we were dealing with conflict at many levels — cross-functional, cross-departmental and individual. This greatly affected our business objectives and outcomes.

When action learning was introduced, its impact and outcome was quick and immediate. Our co-founder participated in the process right from the beginning.
Before AL was introduced, our co-founder noticed that when his managers received instructions, they had a lot of questions, many different ideas, different selection approaches, and different value systems. Managers sometimes were even not willing to support his decisions. Clearly, this way was no longer working for us.”

Joe believes that members being asked to work on an objective must be allowed to show their personal thoughts, be allowed into open communication, develop real mutual understanding, and only they can reach a final consensus that they are ready to act on. These are necessary to remove road blocks and develop the team’s potential.

“Action learning has now become our key tool-set for inter-departmental communication and project management.

It functions not only to help resolve problems, but more importantly, during problem-solving the team re-shapes itself and each individual develops an intangible and necessary self-empowering ability.”

Joe pointed out,

“At this point in the company, I think that training and developing people is key to business sustainability. I am honored to have participated in this turning point in our business. And, truth be known, the change in me that is the most valuable is shown in my personal life. From this training I am a better father and husband.”

The management team reflects periodically on the process which has now been going on for over 2-years. Joe is the role model. The impact on the organization of having Joe as an early adopter was pivotal. They tell the story of his personal transformation. In the beginning, Joe was in the first group trained in AL. We prioritized listening first. Each time Joe asked a question it was a challenge to watch him. It seemed to be physical challenging for this deeply knowledgeable person, so used to simply telling people what they need to know, to go through the contortions necessary to express himself using questions. Now, questions are his natural form of communication. People love to talk with Joe because he helps them to think deeply and thoroughly. For Joe, it was at first a quantitative change which then became a qualitative change.

It’s so striking – if Joe can do it, anyone can do it.

The group was asked about financial data in the company and the bottom line results from adopting AL. The first comment was that everything has changed, so where do we begin to measure? Immediately, a story came out that Joe’s first impulsive move in the face of a challenge used to be firing someone. So each year there were at least 5 severance packages dished out to these people. Now, that never happens. It’s clear to everyone that without Joe’s personal transformation he demonstrated so clearly, the company-wide program would never succeed

Action Learning Based Culture Changing Process

Late in 2012, they invited Paulina Chu (SALC) to help with self-assessment and determine opportunities for using AL in a culture change process.

This organically, step-by-step, developed into a 3-year, 3-stage ongoing process that has shifted deep cultural assumptions in the organization, and with these the company is being run differently and the upcoming generation of managers have a very different set of values than a short 3 years ago. For the past three years, there were 6 CALCs that participated in the MSI culture changing process. They are Wayne Chien, Jack Ho, Effie Pan, Elizabeth Tsai, Connie Tsai and May Han. Key steps in the AL process MSI (Shenzhen) that we went through were:

  • “Soil-Cultivating” (including diagnosing behavioral problems, and clarification of vision and values). At the leadership level, work with mindset, leadership essential program. After that, AL was used.
  • Assessing “The issues we are facing” and “The potential of AL”. This was done in 3 stages for 3 levels of managers. The group named 3 cultural  issues they were facing that needed to change:
    • Stage One – Experimental Stage. 12 top-level managers (4‐day course, June & August 2013). Decision to implement AL company-wide. 6 of the 12 top-level managers volunteered to lead the next stage.
    • Stage Two – Official Internalization Stage. 40 people involved. (4-day course, January & February 2014 and a 5-month “Leaders Build Leaders” project working on 1 problem of their choice per month). The group reported that they learned many specific skills which they could apply to work and life.
    • Stage Three – Expand the Learning Stage. Here, AL really proved valuable with the 3 original cultural issues the organization had initially identified.
  • Program Review – July 2015. Interviews with 14 1st  line managers. All recognized a shift to facilitative and coaching leadership in such a short time. Interdepartmental communication is stronger, and teamwork has shown up throughout the company where it didn’t exist at the outset of this program. There is a change from “performance-driven management decisions” (when under pressure, an early move would be to cut people) to “a priority of growing people as the key asset”.

Reported Learning Benefits

Here are some of the learning or benefits reported by the managers who participated in the Action Learning program:

  1. improvement in asking questions
  2. listening
  3. team thinking
  4. identifying workable solutions
  5. empathy
  6. creativity
  7. other leadership skills.

Results of applying their AL learning to work included better teamwork; to draw on collective wisdom by integrating diversified ideas; to put oneself in someone else’s shoes; to more effectively help other co-workers; which brought about a big improvement in the overall team harmony.

What’s Next

Seeing these tremendous mindset changes and leadership style changes from the top leadership team to middle management level, it is now planned to extend the leadership programs and AL LBL projects, which aligns organizational vision, mission, and values to their current daily work scenario to 150 frontline managers. It is believed that once this stage is completed, a concrete solid ‘AL’ business culture will become its competitive advantage for MSI international in the VUCA World. The intention is to be capable of maintaining a competitive advantage regardless of the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, or Ambiguity that the future holds.

Action Learning Can Accelerate Team Psychological Safety

Psychological safety can do great things for team performance. And why not? If team members feel safe and it’s easier to build trust — that helps elevate performance.

Google spent two years investigating what really makes a team great. Julia Rozovsky, who works on the company’s people analytics team, concluded the most important element separating high-performance teams from average ones is the level of psychological safety. Google made its findings public in 2015, and articles and blogs quickly reported the ‘new’ finding, often simplifying what team psychological safety stands for. One summarized the key to high-performance teams as “just being nice to others.” Not quite.

Some 20 years ago, when studying how teams learn and perform, Harvard leadership and management professor Amy Edmondson described team psychological safety as “a shared belief by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Rozovsky observed this trait in Google’s high-performance teams through two sets of behaviors. The first was “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” meaning all members speak in more or less equal parts. The best teams also had high “average social sensitivity,” meaning team members are good at sensing how others in the team feel.

Despite the enthusiasm for Google’s findings, many related articles only offer descriptions of what teams with high psychological safety look and feel like. If team psychological safety makes the difference in team performance, how can learning leaders develop or increase it? Can you mandate equal air-time in a team? Is it sufficient to send team members on an emotional intelligence course?

Edmondson’s original research identified five elements that affect team psychological safety. The team leader’s behavior obviously influences the team, and team members get cues from the leader about what is valued and what is not. Trust and respect between team members equally affects the overall team atmosphere. Organizational support is important because if absent, team performance will not develop. The fourth element is the set of habits and routines that team members develop amongst themselves when they work together. The final element is the opportunity for the team to practice and improve their tasks off-line without an immediate impact on their actual work.

Action learning is a problem-solving process where a small team works on a real business challenge, takes action and learns as individuals and as a team while doing so. Team members ask questions about the challenge, explore its dimensions, build on each others’ ideas and develop a consensus on the core issue before exploring solutions. An action learning coach’s main role is to support team learning. (Editor’s note: The author is an action learning coach.)

When a leader entrusts a team with a real business challenge and empowers the team to come up with proposals and implement solutions, team members feel valued. Asking questions, building on others’ ideas and reflecting on interpersonal dynamics builds trust and respect among team members. Habits and routines develop and are strengthened when a team regularly works together in a structured way. In action learning, the team evaluates options in a meeting setting before confirming the validity through actions in between sessions.

Action learning is a promising approach to accelerate the development of team psychological safety. A number of action learning sets confirmed this. I worked as an action learning coach with three teams in three different organizations. The teams worked on urgent and important challenges for their respective organizations: reducing inventory, attracting more members, and limiting rank-and-file turnover. Team psychological safety was not discussed as such during the team sessions.

Psychological safety was measured with the original tool developed by Edmondson. Team members rate seven statements — for example, “members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues” — on a 7-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The other themes are about reactions to mistakes, acceptance of diversity, taking risks, asking for help, supporting others’ efforts and expressing appreciation.

This resulted in an average and a spread — a high spread indicates different views between team members about the overall level of safety and is therefore an indication of lower psychological safety in the team. After four action learning sessions, scheduled over two to three months, the measurement was repeated.

In all three teams, the average team psychological safety increased after the sessions, and the spread reduced significantly. Team members’ evaluation of the elements of safety within the team was more aligned. In addition, specific components of psychological safety changed drastically. In one team, the answers to the statement “If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you” moved up by more than 20 percent from an average of 4.7 to 5.7 after four sessions.

Team psychological safety does not pop up after a team retreat. It develops over time. Action learning can accelerate that development.

Peter Cauwelier is a senior action learning coach for the World Institute for Action Learning in Thailand.

Identify The Real Problem … Head In The Right Direction

This is a simple statement, but normally difficult to implement. Often the problem we identify is merely a ‘symptom’ of the real issue. We assume we are right, but we do not dig down to the root of the problem that is confronting us and consequently we create a solution to the wrong problem. Action Learning  is a powerful, yet simple process that enables organizations (small or large; for profit or non-profit) to assure that it does head in the right direction. The AL team focuses on asking probing questions that enable it to funnel down to the cause of the problem. The AL coach assures that the team stays focused on the process. The coach also helps the team to identify if/when they are in agreement as to the identity of the real issue that must be resolved.

With just two rules and six components, the organization, the team, and the individual all benefit.  You can improve your problem solving capabilities and simultaneously build leadership skills in ‘real time’ while implementing “Action Learning”.

Other Methods Work .. Why use Action Learning?

As we move forward in encouraging organizations to use Action Learning, we hope to interact with professionals in the areas of Human Relations Management, Organizational Development, Organizational Change Management, Business Consulting, and Business Management.

No doubt, many OD practitioners and others who are not incorporating AL in their practice will ask “Why should I be interested in AL when the process I advocate works?”  Of course, what is being used does work, however a paper was written by Arthur M. Freedman MBA, PHD, where a comparison is made of the various methods used to help organizations accomplish problem solving and change management.

As the paper indicates, all methods have their place; however AL is a very powerful process that enables problem solving, team cohesion and personal development to occur simultaneously without facilitation.  AL could be incorporated within your practice to help you help your clients.

To read the full article written by Arthur Freedman click the Download button below.

I look forward to your comments.