Five ways to motivate and inspire a high-performing team

Senior leaders should hold themselves and their teams accountable for performance-driven metrics, foster psychologically safe workplaces and reward values-based behaviours

Sandy Jones's avatar

Created in partnership with

Colorado State University Global

Colorado State University Global
24 Nov 2022
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Motivating a team is crucial in HE

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As a senior leader at Colorado State University Global, a 100 per cent online university that is mostly remote, I am often asked: How do you know everyone is working hard from 8am to 5pm? The simple answer is that I don’t need to. Sure, I’m aware of tools that track time on task, but if we aren’t careful, we are measuring “presenteeism”, which, according to Gallup research on employee slumps, is a larger productivity killer than absenteeism.

So how do you motivate and inspire a team to perform at the highest level, especially in a remote or hybrid work environment? Here are five ways:

Everyone needs to have at least one number

Everyone must have at least one (usually three to five) numerical metric they are striving towards, with their progress tracked and documented each week. It sounds simple, and it is, but it isn’t easy. Identifying the right accountability structure for a department can take months, and we constantly question if we are tracking the right metrics and holding the right people accountable to the right performance metrics to achieve our goals. Some metrics are completion-oriented, while others may be more complex goals to increase efficiency, drive outcomes or progress towards development of a new vertical.

Maintain an intense focus on important projects

Each department head selects three to five projects that will move the organisation (not just the department) forward and must be completed within 90 days. We call these “rocks”, which is a term used in EOS, an operating system that we adopted at our university. At weekly meetings, project leaders report on the progress of these projects, which allows them not to lose sight of what matters even with many small tasks (pebbles) that need to be completed in a given week. All rocks are non-negotiable projects with non-negotiable deadlines, so project scaling and adequate resourcing is vital to their success. Sometimes people will say that everything they do is important, to which we respond: “Then it is also true that nothing is important.”

Celebrate milestones

Each month, we report our most impactful metrics to a gathering of all director-level staff at the university. This is where we highlight where we have crushed our goals, which is always fun to do. Sometimes we have a very lofty goal, and we are falling behind a milestone or benchmark. In this case, we run the numbers to see if we are improving, and we usually are, which is still worth celebrating. Celebration wires the brain towards orienting future activities towards the task, which is why doing this is essential to drive high-performing teams.

Cultivate psychological safety

If an organisation is seeking high levels of productivity, employees must feel safe taking risks and offering feedback, according to Google research on high-performing teams. There are specific things organisations must do to promote psychological safety, which include fostering curiosity, debate, risk-taking (even if it results in failure), a no-blame attitude and help-seeking. Reinforcement of these behaviours can be carried out during one-on-ones or team meetings and measured through 360-degree reviews or anonymous employee surveys.

Acknowledge values-based behaviours

If we track and celebrate only individual metrics and projects, we may lose sight of the collaborations, orientations and behaviours that drive collective performance. For this reason, we send team members public or private virtual high-fives that acknowledge when we are operating within a CSU Global value. At our quarterly organisation-wide meetings, each vice-president spotlights one employee who recently achieved a result by demonstrating a behaviour that was in alignment with an organisational value. This demonstrates that how team members go about their work matters to senior leadership as much as how much is accomplished. Additionally, it helps us reinforce our values, which is an activity that high-performing organisations simply can’t do enough of.

These five strategies for managing strong teams are effective because they remove a lot of the subjectivity, uncertainty and favouritism from the workplace and make it clear to each employee and those around them how they are doing at their jobs. While managers love to hire self-motivated employees, if the environment doesn’t track, measure or celebrate performance, these types of employees will flee to somewhere that does.

It’s time for senior leaders at universities to hold themselves and their teams accountable for performance-driven metrics and foster psychologically safe workplaces, while rewarding values-based behaviours – which certainly does not require looking over anyone’s shoulder at an office cubicle.

Sandy Jones serves as vice-president of strategic engagement at Colorado State University Global, where she drives the university’s stakeholder partnerships, brand awareness and enrolment experience.

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