Collaborative Leadership Blog

How to Motivate a Workforce at Risk

Collaboration will be the critical business competency of the Internet age.It won’t be the ability to compete….

–James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge

How do you motivate a workforce in the Digital Age when their future appears to be at risk? We live and work in an era where there is the largest gap in wealth between the top 1% and the rest of us, when executive salaries are hundreds of times the wages of the front line, and where most members of the workforce do not have enough money saved to withstand a major health crisis, let alone retire. Their jobs are at risk. The artificial intelligence expert Kai Fu Lee recently predicted that by 2034, 40% of jobs could be replaced by robots (Fortune, Jan. 10, 2019). Millennials, who by 2030 will be 75% of the workforce, are also deeply concerned about global warming passing the point of no return for the climate by 2030 (United Nations, Nov. 2018)

In this work environment, how can leaders inspire, engage, and motivate the workforce? Certainly not by using 20th Century hierarchical leadership based on power, control, and fear. The 21st Century replacement is collaborative leadership, grounded in the principles of ownership, trust, and full engagement. Collaborative leaders create workplaces that empower the workforce to be their best selves, do their best work, and to produce superior and sustainable results. How do they do that?

While the answer to that question is now the subject of a book I am writing, we can start by understanding 9 fundamental beliefs that collaborative leaders have that result in leadership cultures that motivate and inspire the workforce:

  • Inherent Goodness:  People are inherently good and have intrinsic value. They are responsible, eager to work hard, can be trusted to do their best, and are accountable
  • People Want to Matter: People want to matter in life, in their relationships, and at work, treated like adults, work interdependently, and make a difference in their work
  • Meaning and Contribution: People need to have meaning or a sense of purpose in their work, which is found in the contributions they make to the organization
  • Dignity, Honor and Respect: People need their dignity to be honored and respected by others
  • Trust: People want to be trusted to do their best work, and to be able to trust others
  • Ownership: People need to have psychological ownership over the organization’s vision, mission, goals, and their own jobs and futures
  • Safety: They need to feel psychologically, physically, and emotionally safe in their workplaces
  • Appreciation: People and teams need to be appreciated for their contributions

These core beliefs of collaborative leadership provide solid ground to stand on, and a way to lead based on principle. When our workforces see us behaving this way, they will, in spite of their financial, job security, and other concerns, do whatever they can to ensure the success of the business. They will be their best selves and do their best work.


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, and the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of the forthcoming book: The New Age of Collaboration: Leadership for the 21st Century, 2020.