Each and every person will find something different for inspiration.

Niki Leondakis, chief executive of the Commune Hotels & Resorts chain, kicked off the opening of a new hotel last year by assembling the entire 400-person staff of the new property. Looking to inspire them, she asked if anyone had seen a recent act of kindness that they could share with their colleagues.

A woman stood up. She described how she took a walk with a colleague, a front desk clerk, when they passed a homeless woman holding a naked baby, asking for money to buy diapers. The front desk clerk went to a nearby store and bought some to give to the woman.

“This person makes an hourly wage checking people in and went out of his way to take money out of his pocket and help someone,” Leondakis recalled from her office in San Francisco.

For Leondakis, the story did exactly what she hoped to accomplish during the hotel launch. She wanted to inspire the hotel’s employees to help people, with ideas that came from them, that would show how good customer service comes from caring about people.

Leondakis knows something crucial about leadership: inspiration isn’t about halftime-style speeches meant to rally your team. It’s about finding ways to inspire people using their own stories of success and making a personal connection. And it’s about figuring out what motivates each individual to succeed.

The boredom problem

The thing that most managers fail to realise is that people come to the workplace with a healthy level of intrinsic motivation and inspiration, said Bulent Gogdun, program director and executive coach at European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, Germany. In general, people want to contribute and be happy doing their job. “There’s a very natural, innate drive in us to do things and to succeed at what we’re doing,” Gogdun said.

It’s the manager’s job, then, to make sure employees don’t get bored with their work. If they do, the boss must figure out not just how to motivate them but what went wrong in losing their interest previously. That’s done by figuring out what inspires each member of your team. You need to figure out their calling and get them on it. “Each and every person will find something different for inspiration,” Gogdun said.

What motivates can differ by country and culture too. In China, Gogdun said, workers often want to feel like family with more of a group dynamic. That’s less important in northern Europe, where employees are more likely to be task-oriented and take inspiration from hitting goals. And in North America, people are more individualistic and may want more freedom to decide how their jobs get done.

No matter the country, people want to feel like their bosses care about them and understand their personal goals, said Edward Hess, professor of business administration at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in the US.

Many managers might assume inspiration comes from pep talks, said Hess, author of the book Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. But autocratic leaders who try to pump their troops up with board meeting speeches often elicit more eye-rolling than inspiration.

In reality, it’s about meaningfully relating to employees, said Hess. It’s about being honest, authentic and letting an employee know you rely on them. Then, employees will care and be more engaged in their work.

“That’s how you inspire,” Hess said, “by showing your employees that you personally care about their well-being.”

Starting at the top

Leondakis has seen that in action at her company, which manages 41 hotels and resorts in North America and Europe. Polls of people across industries worldwide have found nearly two thirds of workers are not engaged with their work, so Leonadakis actively works to find inspiration for the hotel chain’s employees.

“It’s something often times CEOs and leaders leave to human resources – to inspire their employees,” Leondakis said. “It’s so critical that it starts at the top.”

Leondakis used the story of the front desk clerk buying diapers for a homeless woman to emphasise that hotel employees can keep customers happy by assuring their needs are met. That’s done not only by actions, but also by the employees showing that they care. It’s a kind of care that helps the company and is reflected in customer-generated reviews left on hotel rating websites like Trip Advisor.

“I always tell my employees, ‘You have the power to make someone’s day. How great does that feel when someone does that for you? Why not do that for others?,’” she said.

The kind of empathetic approach you take on will certainly vary depending on your industry, but showing your staff that you care just might be the answer to keeping your employees inspired.

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