Ditch the Pep Talk

Jan. 20, 2022

Pep talks are largely ineffective. Motivate your team not by what you say to them, but how you say it.

The pep talk has gained almost legendary status as the best way to motivate any group of people for any upcoming event or task. 

We’ve all seen those movies or TV shows about the underdog sports team trailing big at the half, only for the head coach to give an impassioned speech that inspires the team and, against all odds, propels them to victory. 

It’s a nice sentiment, and striving to be a leader who inspires can help significantly in your day-to-day shop life. However, Alison Smith, a small business coach and professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., says it’s cliche—and mostly just untrue—to think that our words themselves are enough to inspire people above and beyond what they would normally do. 

“You can't motivate anybody,” Smith says. “You can create conditions in which those people who are likely to become motivated will be motivated.” 

So when looking to start off the morning on the right foot, Smith says instead of spending time trying to find the right words to say to your team, focusing on fostering an environment of productivity is the best way to get immediate results. 

Step 1: Get yourself in the right headspace.

Before anything else, Smith says getting yourself into the best possible mindset for the workday could be the difference between a great day or a bad one.

“The effectiveness of the team begins with the effectiveness of the leader,” she says. “If the leader has their head on right from the beginning of the day, good things tend to happen.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to get into that mindset, however. With so much going on in day-to-day shop life, it can become easy to lose focus and feel overwhelmed.

“Our minds tend to be this big scramble of all kinds of stuff, some useful, some not,” Smith says, “and because of the way that our brains are constructed, we often put more of a mental emphasis on that which we're worried about.”

Smith says, though not an end-all-be-all solution, starting the morning with a routine can help jump-start that process. Even something as simple as making and pouring a cup of coffee can act as the first item on the day’s to-do list that you can cross off, building positive momentum before you set foot in your shop.

Once you get in, Smith says the first thing any manager or owner of any small business should do is physically write down a list of the tasks that both can and need to be completed for the day, as well as the things that are stressful but can’t immediately be solved.

“Making a dividing line between those two things is absolutely essential,” Smith says. “Once you get an idea of what you should be focusing on and what are things you're worried about but can't really focus on for the day, you can figure out how to translate that and communicate that to your team effectively.”

Step 2: Create a dialogue.

Though Smith says a specific pep talk or other motivational meeting isn’t usually as effective as the one giving it might want it to be, talking to your employees—instead of at them—about the important tasks or goals of the day can get them in the right mindset.

“The most important question any employee wants answered is, ‘What's expected of me?’” Smith says. “Making sure that your employees clearly know what the organization is about, where you're heading and then that part to play in that success is really important.”

Those conversations don’t necessarily have to center around their day-to-day responsibilities—most technicians and other employees who have been at your shop for a while should have a decent understanding of their actual duties. Instead, asking  where they see themselves in the shop and how their growth trajectory matches with that of the business can create a healthy dialogue and make an employee feel you care about more than just their production.

“Everybody needs to learn and grow,” Smith says. “Being able to ask your employee what they’re interested in and what is helpful to them is critical. We need to have people who really want to do this job, who are interested in it for the sake of what it gives them. We need to have those people in the shop to start with. And if we don't, there's not a single thing we can do in order to motivate them.”

Step 3: Invest in your employees.

Asking an employee how they see themselves fitting into the shop is a good first step, but Smith says owners need to build on that positive momentum to really get the most out of their employees.

“I don’t think it’s very complicated, but it does entail a manager having to be really straightforward with what the organization is trying to achieve,” Smith says. “It could be in the form of what's our mission or vision. It could be in the form of what we are trying to achieve financially this week. Whatever it is, your employees have to know how they fit in.”

Regular check-ins with your employees can help keep them engaged in their day-to-day tasks and feel that they have an important role in the shop. It also helps them feel that they have some autonomy and potential growth in their role, according to Smith. 

In most cases, people don’t respond to a stereotypical pep talk in the way the person giving that talk might want them to. Instead, fostering an environment in which employees feel inspired to perform well on a day-to-day basis is much more effective.  

“Small businesses don't employ small people. They employ fully grown, fully operative people,” Smith says. “We need to make sure that we're attending to the things that people need, which is to feel part of something that's going in a useful direction, to know what's expected of them and to see what they can look forward to.”