One of the things I love about coming to work at Shutterstock is helping people on our teams succeed. Over the years leading teams of technologists, designers, researchers, sales and customer service I’ve learned a helpful distinction - the difference between inspiration and motivation. Great leaders know the difference between inspiration and motivation.  As a leader, you’ll need to use both, but if you want your teams to be more productive and satisfied, I’d suggest more inspiration and less motivation.  What’s the difference? In searching for definitions of both there are blogs such as this one where the author posits commonly held motivational techniques such as affirmation, reward and punishment as mistakes. I agree, but would take it a step further, there exists an underlying failure in the concept of motivation.  SImply put, motivation is largely based in fear.

Motivation is rooted in fear

American Psychologist Abraham Maslow when defining his hierarchy of needs came up with another word "Metamotivational" to help him distinguish between basic motivations and an activity that drives “self actualized” people because the traditional definition lacked something for his purpose. Motivation can be defined as the reaction to a deficiency or need driving us toward a goal.  To put this in perspective, when we hear people say, “I’m self motivated.” what they often mean is “I’m afraid of failure” or “I’m afraid of looking bad.”  As a leader you may hear about the need to motivate your team. If you are resorting to motivation too often, you could be missing the point.  Some of the least successful people I’ve worked with were highly motivated, but how their motives were actualized was un-constructive. Why not create the space for inspiration instead?

For instance, an engineer highly motivated to hit a deadline because he needs a paycheck could write shoddy code to get there full well knowing that it will need to be re-written and cost the organization later. I’d argue this engineer is not inspired to create a great, scalable product but rather motivated to complete a task. Alternatively, inspiration can create something beyond the goals and expectations we have for each other on a team.

Inspiration exceeds reason

Inspiration is less talked about in psychological circles and referenced more often in terms of creativity leading to musical, literary or artistic endeavors. Without debating the definition of inspiration, I’d posit that one of the key attributes of inspiration is the creation of new action without the need of a goal. Inspiration comes from within, It’s important to note that you cannot create inspiration in another person, but you can help them find their own inspiration.  Rewarding your top team members financially is both necessary and a great motivator, but if in addition they are inspired, you now have a force multiplier. 

As a leader, you succeed based on your team’s performance. Your team is innately motivated by their fears, having enough to eat, looking good, fear of failure and a host of other things that would make us more effective if we stopped doing.  Ask yourself if you’ve created enough space in the workplace for your team’s inspiration. You cannot inspire someone else, you can be inspired and that can be contagious, but those are different concepts.  You must offer the space for other’s inspiration. 

There are many payoffs to inspired teams of people. One benefit is that your message is amplified because inspiration is contagious, other’s can sense it.  This contagion creates new courses of action outside of what you had originally imagined in goal-setting. Adversely, because they are largely based in fear, motivations tend to be ideas people keep to themselves.

So What

There’s a time and place for both inspiration and motivation, but realize that motivations alone won’t grow the business. Here’s a practical list of questions you ask your team to create inspiration. Being open to the answers to these questions - even if they aren’t what you imagined - creates the space for their inspiration.

1. How comfortable are you doing this work?

2. What does your perfect day at work look like?

3. What are your best skills?  The areas you enjoy most.