Adair’s 8 Basic Rules of Motivation details 8 things that motivating leaders should do. These are: be motivated themselves, select people who are highly motivated, treat people as individuals, set stretching but achievable goals, remember that progress motivates, create motivating environments, provide fair rewards and give recognition.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Adair’s 8 Basic Rules of Motivation

John Adair, a prolific British academic and leadership theorist, has published many theories and models. The one that we are interested in here is his 8 basic rules of motivation for leaders.

This list details basic steps that leaders can take to ensure they are more motivating for their teams. While these rules aren’t as academically researched the some other models of motivation, the list is still very useful.

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Rule 1 – Be Motivated Yourself

Motivation and enthusiasm can be infectious.

The first of Adair’s 8 Basic Rules of Motivation is to be motivated yourself.

Motivated people are more motivating to be around. They tend to bring more energy with them and enthusiasm for what they do. And this energy and enthusiasm can be contagious.

If you manage your own motivation and pursue things that you’re truly passionate about, then you’ll be more motivating for those around you. You can think of this as putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

Rule 2 – Select People who are Highly Motivated

Not everyone is naturally equally motivated and driven. And even people who are naturally motivated, have different preferences and desires regarding the types of work that they do and the type of objectives that motivate them.

Given this, it’s important to recruit and find people to work with you who are both naturally motivated and genuinely interested and passionate about the type of work that you need them to do.

Rule 3 – Treat Each Person as an Individual

Everyone is unique and humans are fundamentally social beings. As social beings we value our identities and care about how others think about us and interact with us. When we are treated as individuals we feel a sense of connection, trust and potentially respect. We feel recognized and that we have some status. When we are simply treated as a number, we don’t feel seen and valued, and when we don’t feel valued, we often don’t feel motivated.

To make the most of this rule, get to know your people, to understand them as people and learn to motivate them as the individuals they are.

Rule 4 – Set Realistic and Challenging Targets

If your targets are all moon-shots, people may not think they’re achievable.

The fourth of Adair’s 8 Basic Rules of Motivation us to set realistic yet challenging targets.

We can think about this as Goldilocks goals. If individuals have goals that feel too easy, they won’t be motivated as they won’t feel any reward for achieving the goals. You can learn more about different types of goals, SMART goals and Locke and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory in other posts.

Similarly, if they have goals that are too challenging, then they won’t feel that achieving them is possible and they won’t be motivated.

However, if individuals have goals that are just right, that are realistic and yet challenging, they will believe they can achieve them, feel good when they have achieved them and be motivated to complete them. (See Vroom’s Expectancy Theory for a more detailed consideration of this theme)

Rule 5 – Remember that Progress Motivates

It feels good to get things done, to hit targets and to achieve milestones. If people go too long without feeling a sense of progress then they can lose motivation. It’s important then to structure deliverables in such a way that they create a sense of continued achievement and progress.

This means that sometimes it’s important to break large tasks down into smaller tasks that can be completed to ensure that the sense of progress is maintained. (We also see the idea that progress motivates appear in some change leadership theories, for example John Kotter’s)

Rule 6 – Create a Motivating Environment

Some environments are more motivating than others.

The environments that we operate in, both physical and psychological, have a huge impact on the way that we behave. If our psychological environments or cultures are unsafe or threatening, then it will be hard for individuals to be motivated. Similarly if our physical environments are oppressive or overly bland, then again it will be hard for individuals to feel motivated. (You can see more about the effects of environment on behaviors in Kurt Lewin’s behaviour equation)

Rule 7 – Provide Fair Rewards

Fairness is very important when it comes to motivation. If people feel there is a disconnect between the amount that they contribute and the rewards that they receive, then they become dissatisfied and distressed. When this happens they are driven to return things to a sense of fairness and they often lose motivation for the actual delivery that is asked of them.

Fairness isn’t just about providing reward though, fairness also requires the application of discipline when appropriate as well. (See Adams’ equity theory of motivation for more on this theme)

Rule 8 – Give Recognition

Sometimes a thank you is all it takes to make someone feel recognized and valued.

Everyone likes to be rewarded for the efforts that they put in, and one of the types of reward that people value most is recognition. People like to be valued and feel respected, and recognition helps to make this happen.

When people in your team do something good then, it’s very important to recognize them for this. That said, it’s important that recognition is earned and not just given away, otherwise it will lose it’s value. Giving recognition costs very little and brings great benefits so it’s a great leadership tool. Like all tools though, it needs to be used well to be effective.

Learning More

We’ve written several articles on various content and process theories of motivation that you might find interesting. These include articles on Adam’s equity theory, Alderfer’s ERG Theory of Motivation and Herzberg’s two factor theory of motivation. We’ve also written an introductory post of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and one on Reversal Theory. You can listen to our podcast on reversal theory below:

The World of Work Project View

Adair’s 8 Basic Rules of Motivation is simple but helpful. It pulls from many different streams of motivation and behavior theory and provides a sensible an actionable set of guidelines for leaders. While it’s not nearly as in depth as many models, it’s a simple and useful point of reference that is easy to follow.

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