My eldest daughter is a senior in our local university’s architecture program. She is moved by clean lines, interesting materials and how buildings impact the way humans live. Her class recently took a trip to New York City and wandered the streets with eyes to the sky, taking in the city’s extraordinary architecture. When they weren’t looking at buildings, they were talking about buildings, thinking about buildings or sketching in their notebooks.

To her, this trip was invigorating, inspiring and could have a major impact on her design approach. To me, this trip sounds enjoyable, but it would probably lose my attention quickly. I’m not inspired by architecture. But a trip to NYC is incredibly inspiring for me in other ways. Time in my favorite cathedral, good wine in a rooftop bar with a view and a walk down a city street with my wife can refresh my outlook and attitude. It’s the pace of the city, the countless number of options and romance of the atmosphere that move me. My daughter and I can be inspired by different experiences in the same destination.

Ask 100 people what inspires them, and you will get 100 different answers.

The impact of inspiration

The word inspiration comes from the Latin noun inspiration and from the verb inspirare, meaning to “blow into.” There have been innumerable attempts to define inspiration, but this one is my favorite: a motivational state that compels individuals to bring new ideas into fruition. It’s the thing that propels a person from apathy to thought, from inaction to action. Inspiration can solve lingering problems, generate fresh ideas and show us that we need to make a change.

Inspiration can be an incredibly powerful force that alters the perspective of how employees view their work. I love the story about a visit President John F. Kennedy made to the NASA space center in 1962. During a tour of the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor carrying a broom. He asked the man what he was doing, and the man responded, “Well Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” This man can obviously teach us a lot about perspective. But another important point in this story is for leaders. What happens when an employee feels they are putting a man on the moon instead of just sweeping the floor?

Inspiration vs. motivation

The problem with inspiration is that it is incredibly hard to define and harder to achieve in organizations. Because it is generated on such an individualistic basis, it’s difficult for leaders to create a formula that works to inspire an entire team. It’s important here to make a distinction between inspiration and motivation.

I think of inspiration as a pull experience and motivation as a push experience. An individual pulls inspiration internally into themselves from an experience or observation. Whereas motivation often comes in the form of external forces pushing an individual to act. My manager saying performance is down and my bonus is on the line is a motivator in that it pushes me to sell more and work harder. Inspiration and motivation can result in the same output, but the forces that drive the behaviors come from very different places. Motivation is usually connected to consequences – I don’t want to lose my job or I don’t want to let my team down – and inspiration is connected to a different source of action. It’s a really funky, fine line, but an important one. The reason we believe leaders should strive to inspire is because while both inspiration and motivation can cause someone to work harder, inspiration is the thing that will cause them to be curious, more creative, innovate, be open-minded and independently think of ways to improve. The cumulative effects of inspiration on an individual makes it more sustainable than motivation, because it stems from within you (an individual), and not me (a leader).

Motivation is about reality. Inspiration is about the possibility of a different reality.

Research on inspiration

Research by psychologists and authors of Inspiration as a Psychological Construct Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot produced these observations about inspiration.

  • Inspired people share certain characteristics. Thrash and Elliot developed the “Inspiration Scale” which measures the frequency with which a person experiences inspiration in their daily lives. They found that inspired people were more open to new experiences and reported more absorption in their tasks.
  • Inspired people are more intrinsically motivated and less extrinsically motivated, which strongly impacts work performance positively.
  • Inspired people have more belief in their own abilities, self-esteem, and optimism.
  • Inspiration is the springboard for creativity. Inspired people view themselves as more creative and show actual increases in self-ratings of creativity over time.

Thrash and Elliot’s Inspiration Scale was the basis for further studies, including one by Marina Milyavskaya and colleagues at Carleton University CA. They found that people who scored higher on the Inspiration Scale displayed increased goal progress, and their progress was a result of setting more inspired goals. Therefore, people who were generally more inspired in their daily lives also tended to set inspired goals, which were then more likely to be successfully attained. As the researchers noted, “goal progress and goal inspiration build on each other to form a cycle of greater goal inspiration and greater goal pursuit.” Finally, inspired individuals reported experiencing more purpose in life and more gratitude.

Another important study on inspiration was conducted by Bain in 2016. 10,000 respondents were asked to rate how inspired they were by their colleagues and to rate a list of traits in order of how connected they were to inspiration. The result was a model of 33 characteristics that distinguishes inspiring leaders including items like independence, optimism, vitality and follow through. Yes, 33 is a lot of traits for a leader to aspire to, but it makes sense when we remember that people are inspired by very different things. The good news from the study is that the researchers found that by leveraging only a few, a leader can effectively inspire their team.

After sorting through the research, we’ve compiled eight practical ways leaders can inspire their teams. This list was developed with a general sensibility in mind to be effective with most individuals, to present a reasonable approach for leaders to follow.

Practical ways for leaders to inspire their teams

  1. Work with them. The most inspiring leaders are highly collaborative. They work alongside their people to make things happen, rather than issuing directives. Two of the most inspiring words are we and together.
  2. Encourage self-development. Inspiring leaders want their people to develop. They invest in them, and they encourage activities that foster physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth and well-being.
  3. Acknowledge them. Everyone has 3 fundamental needs, according to science: to feel safe, to feel like we belong, and to feel like we matter. Through acknowledgement and appreciation, we can address all three and inspire our people to give us 100%.
  4. Listen. Again, employees want to know they matter. It’s not enough to share your vision. Followers want to contribute their ideas and perspectives as well.
  5. Invest time in good communication. Inspiring leaders understand the impact of great communication, and the harm of poor communication. They know communication can be a catalyst to growth and use it as a strategic tool to achieve their goals.
  6. Act with integrity and inspire trust. Employees take their cues from their leaders. To believe in their leaders, they must believe them. Inspiring leaders know every action matters.
  7. Have a clear vision, mission, and values system. Inspiring leaders know that the most effective way to enroll followers is to clearly articulate what they believe in, why they exist, and where they are going. Followers need something tangible to grasp.
  8. Create stretch goals. Paint a bold picture for your employees and followers that helps them visualize unlimited possibility.

The importance of values

The point about values in the previous section is the most important to me personally. A leader paints a canvas for their organization of vision, direction and focus but the underpinning of these is his or her values: respect, fairness and authenticity. Values give me the right to hang my vision on as a leader. If these values align with those of my employees, they are more likely to buy into my vision and follow me along my path. There must be a harmony between values and business practices, creating moments and experiences when the things that move an employee to be inspired are exhibited in their leader and their organization. This is where a leader can frame their inspiration brand, focusing on their own attributes that come naturally to create inspirational moments.

What is your inspiration brand?

*Contributing author is Blaze Petersen