How Great Retail Leaders Motivate

Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman wrote “The Extraordinary Leader,” they discovered that there were five “fatal flaws” that leaders must avoid or change in their behavior and attitude in order to be approachable and effective in their role with their team:

  1. Inability to learn from mistakes
  2. Lack of core interpersonal skills and competencies
  3. Lack of openness to new or different ideas
  4. Lack of accountability and excessive defensiveness and
  5. Lack of initiative.

None of these are surprising. When leaders are defensive and don’t behave in a responsible [or adult] way – it is a huge turn off to their team members. There is no respect, no trust, and absolutely no way your team will be open enough to learn anything from you. We know that the “ability to motivate” is one of the non-negotiables our team members have of us as retail leaders inside retail. So – what does that really mean? What are their actual expectations of us in this area? One of the biggest educational moments I have had, as it relates to learning about motivation and how to be an effective motivator to my team is learn about the powerful difference between:

Intrinsic motivation – which is more of the personal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment one feels and how that feeling compels them to grow and accomplish more.

Extrinsic motivation – which is defined by the drive to do things for tangible rewards [or pressures], rather than for the sense of personal reward.


Obviously, having people join your team who identify as being intrinsically motivated are easier to lead. They want to deliver great results because they feel rewarded and satisfiedwhen they do. For these employees, their leaders recognition and attention is icing on the cake and they, generally, enjoy guidance and support.  The other employees can be amazing as well and by helping them link their success to both external recognition and how the accomplishment made them feel inside you can help them discover and elevate their intrinsic motivation quotient. A great boss, will quickly find out [it’s even okay to ask the question in the interview phase of the relationship] what type of person their team member is and use that to help guide and grow them.

Author Daniel Pink reinforces in his book, “Driven: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us“, cites research into  a self-determination theory, which: “…argues that we have three innate psychological needs — competence, autonomy and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity and happiness plummet.”

According to executive leadership coach Carl Robinson, PhD, there are Six Important Steps to being a highly-effective motivator in any retail organization:

1. Generate and Sustain Trust:

I have written an article about Trust In The Retail Workplace, it is critical to build relationships that are mutually committed and focused on growth and achieving results. Trust is absolutely necessary for employees to:

-feel they are able to rely upon a person;
-cooperate with and experience teamwork with a group;
-take thoughtful risks;
-experience believable communication

The best retail leaders understand that trust is built when their words and actions are aligned. They lead by example. “Leaders model the way through their personal example and their observable dedication. They also act quickly to stop behaviors that breakdown trust and collaboration [for example: unethical behavior, gossiping, toxic employees and unproductive complaining.]”

2. Have the Right People

Successful retail leaders [and their organizations support this] hire truly competent people. Employees that do not need to be actively “managed” to deliver great results [again…intrinsically motivated]. Retail leaders are motivated, themselves, to bring on people who have the knowledge and the skills in various areas so that the team can be high-functioning and highly-productive in every area of the business. They also make sure that each team member brings their unique and special qualities to the team and that they are recognized and appreciated for what they bring to the organization. Great leaders know that having the right people on their teams, who are able to work equally well as individuals and collaboratively, is key to ensuring that they have time to spend supporting, developing, and helping people grow.


3. Inspire A Shared Vision

Highly effective leaders see their vision and how it is aligned with the company’s vision and values, and then they communicate it in an incredibly galvanizing manner that taps into and engages the dreams of their team. Being able to help your team identify the meaning & purpose of their jobs (even the icky parts they don’t like) is fundamental to job satisfaction in retail. Employees want the guidance, empathy, and involvement of their leader especially when they are feeling uninspired. Being able to be the voice of reason and the primary reason they feel compelled to keep plugging along can be done through support, encouragement, and availability of your leadership.

4. Enable Others To Act

Great retail leaders put their team members in the spotlight. “It’s paradoxical but, the more successful and effective a leader is the more humble they are. In fact, they make you feel important because they take you seriously. Top motivators don’t cast a large shadow that prevents others from being in the light. They also foster a team effort by promoting collaboration through relationships and supporting personal development.” Great leaders know that the success of their employees speaks to their ability to develop and grow the skills, competencies, and careers of their employees. They are intrinsically motivated to see their employees shine and grow!

5. Management of Respect

This step is an extension of the previous step. By your employees knowing and experiencing your desire to see them excel – you are motivating them to be innovative, creative, solution-oriented leaders themselves. They don’t fear someone holding them back in their career growth. They are galvanized to work harder and feel a greater sense of accomplishment, both as individuals and as part of a collaborative team,  because their contributions are recognized and making a difference and they feel supported by their boss and their organization.

6. Search For Opportunities

Effective leaders search for opportunities take risks to help their organizations. Again, they embrace innovation and creativity. They ask their team what they think – how things can be done better, more efficiently, and how can we improve the results? Effective leaders don’t shy away from difficulty to protect their jobs – they are courageous in the face of chaos and challenge and they inspire action – they work for solutions to overcome the obstacles that are hindering and hurting the business. Doing the same thing over and over may be safe but, it doesn’t motivate people very much. It’s super boring as a matter of fact. The best – most motivational leaders – support and encourage change and improvement.


Here are some other quick insights on how to master your motivation strategy for your team:

  • Competence is an intrinsic motivator. It feels good to do things we know we do well, so people gravitate toward their strengths. Bosses can fuel this with frequent feedback that reinforces what they’re doing well and why, and by assignments that play to their strengths.
  • Progress/Growth is an intrinsic motivator. That’s why “stretch” assignments and offering development can be great motivational tools when presented properly. “This is an important project/topic and though you’ve never tackled something like this before,  I believe you can do it and I’ll help you” can ignite a person’s motivation.
  • Mastery is a tremendous motivator. When am employee becomes the go-to person on a topic or skill or a mentor to others in their area, their intrinsic motivation is elevated. Managers can craft training and feedback strategies for employees to help them achieve mastery in various areas of their job. In today’s business parlance, leaders are helping employees “build their personal and professional brand.”
  • Autonomy fuels intrinsic motivation. That’s why the best retail leaders don’t micro-manage. They know how to convey their expectations and give people latitude on how to reach those goals but are there to help and support should they need it.

Intrinsic motivators are augmented by other factors. Professional personality, workplace culture, and experiences can all contribute to what drives each person to deliver great results. Some prefer working in teams, others alone; some like public recognition, others prefer private; some people love industry awards/certificates, others care little about them but hunger for professional growth, development, and increased responsibility. Knowing the individuals who make up your team is key to leaders maximizing the effectiveness of their motivation strategies.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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