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Sales Motivation Principles That Actually Work

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
13 min read

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Sales Motivation Principles That Actually Work:

Full Transcript

I had a boss about 10 years ago who didn’t seem to understand motivation at all. Here’s something he said. “If they don’t get paid, they’ll see how hard it is to own a business.” He was saying that about his own employees. He said it about our sales team. He was saying it about everybody at the company, and of course, none of the company’s employees own that business. He was the only owner of that business. They were just employees. If they do their jobs, they should get paid.

When he said this particular thing, people were not getting paid, and of course that pissed them off. Needless to say, that company went under after about 20 years in business. It’s quite astounding and amazing that they held on that long. What he seemed to misunderstand was the difference between what motivated him and what motivated others. His motivation was to build something. His motivation was to own something large. His motivation was to take all the spoils of owning that thing and get the social status of being a business owner and how it was occasionally impressive to others. Our sales team at that company was commission only. They were motivated to sell to get paid, but they didn’t like working there very much and they didn’t care that much about our product or service. And this taught me something about how motivation works.

External motivation only goes so far. Even the people who were commission only were not thriving as salespeople. They had all kinds of problems, and when times were tough they looked elsewhere for money and for their own motivation and their fulfillment. And since there will be good times and bad in anything that we do, understanding motivation for ourselves, our companies and our teams is pretty critical to implementing a sales program that can actually sustain itself.

In this episode of Modern Sales, we’ll talk about how motivation works and how you can improve yours to keep your drive even when things aren’t going well as you’d like.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast that’ll help you sell more by understanding how people buy. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, founder of Serve Don’t Sell, and I dig through academic research, interview people inside and outside of sales, and nerd out on psychology, economics, and neuroscience to figure out how people make decisions. And I am on a mission to change the way 100 million people sell so that buying B2B services can feel just as rewarding as doing a favor for a friend. Wouldn’t that’d be nice?

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Our motivation comes from both inside of us and outside. We are after all animals responding to our environment. Maybe you’ve heard something called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Well, what that says is until our physiological needs are provided for, we can’t even begin to focus on higher order needs like self-actualization or self-improvement. But there’s a lot that goes into motivation that has nothing to do with Maslow’s Hierarchy or is more complicated than what the model provides. Where it comes from, what affects our motivation is one of the most important thing determine factors in our personal success and the success of our firms. But what does the science say about motivation and what should we do about it? That’s coming up right after the short break.

Welcome back. Sometimes we feel more motivated and sometimes we feel less motivated, but we have to keep showing up, doing our jobs and helping people even though sometimes we need some help ourselves to get through it. The truth is, in any business, anything that I do, anything that you do, there are good times and there are bad times. You’re never thinking in good times, how can I stay more motivated? Because you’re on a roll. You’re having positive feedback and positive reinforcement. You just want to keep getting more of those good times. But it’s the bad times and maybe the average or neutral times that cause us to pause and think about what can we do to improve this situation.

And the solution is to give ourselves and our teams as much motivation as we possibly can. And what I’d suggest is that we all start by looking at what the science says about motivation. And the truth is it’s kind of a hard, large topic to dissect in 30 minutes, but I’m going to do my best and I’ve curated the research that I’ve done to just present you this short episode so that you can learn enough to go out and apply this to yourself or to your team and make a substantive difference.

Now, motivation has two main parts. The first is called the objective part. That’s the thing we want. In sales, maybe that’s revenue, maybe that’s reaching our quota or accomplishing one of our KPIs. Maybe it’s reaching our business goals if you’re a business owner like I am. Whatever it is, there is some sort of goal, some object, some thing that we want. Whether it’s tangible or imaginary, we would know if we achieve it or not. The second part of motivation is called the subjective part. That’s why we want the thing.

So on the one hand there’s a thing we want, our KPI, our quota, our commission, our revenue, whatever it is, and then there’s the why we want it. And that part, my friend is very, very powerful and that’s what we’re going to mostly focus on today is that why we want it. In psychology, motivation is typically conceived as a cycle. We have thoughts and those thoughts influence our behavior. The drives that we have influence our thoughts in the first place, and then the cycle repeats over and over and over and over again. What constitutes a drive and how that influences our thoughts? That’s a big question. And what I want to get to is that core drive, some of those core motivations that are happening inside of us that tell us something about how we can stay motivated. Even in the most difficult times.

Now, often in sales we think about mostly external motivations, winning a deal, getting a new client, getting our commission, hitting our revenue goals. Those are all the objective motivations. But the more powerful motivation is what’s happening inside the subjective motivation, why we want the thing. And the way to think about that subjective part, the internal motivation, it’s called self-determination theory.

Now, you’ve been warned already about listening to this podcast. I’m a nerd. I’m very analytical and so I’m not going to bore you with all of the details about the psychological theory, but what’s important to know is there is this thing called self-determination theory and it has three basic parts. Number one, competence, number two, relatedness, and number three, autonomy. And what self-determination theory is is essentially a model that helps us understand where our internal motivation comes from and this isn’t biological factors obviously, right? If I’m hungry, then I’m going to do something to go find food. Or if I need shelter to protect my physical body from the elements or from strangers, then I’m going to look for housing, right? That stuff’s obvious.

Not going to cover any of that here, but-self determination theory, assuming you have some of the other bases covered is what we need to think about in order to understand how we ourselves are motivated and in order to understand how other people are most motivated. And we know that in self-determination, theory, competence, relatedness and autonomy, we’re going to be the most motivated when all three of those things are aligned. So what I’m going to do for the remainder of the episode is look at each of these factors in self-determination theory and how they can help you stay more motivated or motivate your team.

So number one is competence, and competence is the idea that we want to control the outcome of what we’re doing and achieve mastery. What that means is the more we dig into subject matter, the more we learn about our profession, the more we’re able to help our clients, the more competent we become. And I got to tell you, that feels good. When I’m on a call with a prospect and they give me the compliment that I really know when I’m saying that I’m really helpful to them even before they pay me a dollar, that I’ve helped them reach an insight or a conclusion that they didn’t see before, that’s rewarding. That’s deeply, deeply motivating. And the reason it’s motivating is because we’re all seeking competence. So investing in ourselves typically means we’ll be more motivated in the long run. And the reason for that is when people are given unexpected positive feedback, it satisfies their need for competence and can increase their motivation.

So back to my example, as I develop expertise and I deliver it to more prospects or to more podcast listeners or to more email subscribers… By the way, subscribe to my email, shameless plug there. But as I get more feedback from people, it becomes very clear that I’ve achieved some level of competence. And when someone gives me a compliment, an unexpected piece of positive feedback, it reinforces my motivation to continue to increase that competence. So there’s a positive feedback loop that starts. Similarly, negative feedback has the opposite effect. When we receive negative feedback, it diminishes our feeling of competence, our feeling of mastery, our feeling of control and that can have a negative impact on our motivation.

So you’ve probably heard of the feedback sandwich, which has been proven or disproven depending on which studies you read, but it’s this idea that whenever you give feedback to someone on your team, you should start with a piece of positive feedback, then give your negative feedback, and then give another piece of positive feedback.

What I would say is screw all that. Start to develop a culture within your team if you do have a team where the goal is truth and the goal is learning. And if we can throw away this idea of negative feedback and instead replace it with constructive feedback, then it has less of a chance of effecting our feeling of competence. I personally find that the more expertise I develop, the more likely I am to get positive feedback from the market and from my prospects in the form of compliments on my service offerings and on my content and of course in the form of delivering real results to real people who really pay for my services. And that’s pretty important, right?

So you want to see that too. If you’re in a sales role where you just hand your clients off to a delivery team, take some time to follow up with them and make sure that they’re actually getting what they signed up for to make sure that they’re actually having a good experience, and that can reinforce your competence. And of course, if there’s a disconnect there, you can change and realign how you sell in order to make sure that you are being competent and that you are delivering what it is that’s going to help clients make the biggest difference.

The second part of self-determination theory is relatedness, and relatedness is our desire to interact with, connect to, and care for others. Now I’m really partial to this one. The name of my business is Serve Don’t Sell, which is both a command and a call to action, right? I want you to think about not what’s in it for you, but how you can help someone else. And the reason I want that so badly is because I believe that so much of life’s meaning and purpose comes from helping others. This is pretty well-documented as well. We tend to be a lot happier and a lot healthier when we’re in service to other people rather than being so squarely focused on what it is that we need.

Somewhat paradoxically, don’t worry, I’ll get off my soapbox in a second here, but somewhat paradoxically we tend to get more of what we want and we tend to be happier and healthier when we give other people what it is they want. It’s not an accident that it’s a core motivator in self-determination theory. It’s fulfilling to us to relate to others and to care for them. And so I ask you, who can you help today, or better yet, how can you help just one person today?

There are several levels of relatedness that you can think about. One is how do you relate to your clients? So what kinds of interactions do you have with them? In what different ways do you connect with them and deliver value? In what ways do you tangibly care for them or give to them or contribute to them? Be really clear about that. Try to mix it up if you feel that there are more ways that you can serve your clients that you’re not already. That will help you with this feeling of relatedness. T.

he second group to think about is how you relate to other people within your firm. So if you’re an individual contributor, how do you interact with and serve your peers? How do you interact with and serve your bosses? If it’s your firm, how are you taking care of your people? And what’s important here is when we’re part of a team, relatedness is operating on two big dimensions. One is it’s strengthening or diminishing how related you feel to others and therefore how motivated you are. But it’s also strengthening or diminishing how related they feel to you and how related they feel to your company and affecting their motivation.

And the last group of people I’d suggest you think about is other people in your industry. So of course I produced this podcast. It’s for business owners, sales leaders, and individual salespeople. But plenty of other people who produce sales content end up listening to the podcast, end up connecting with me. I can help serve them by having them on this podcast, or they can help serve me by having me on their podcast.

The point is, as much as it sometimes seems like we’re in strict competition with everyone around us, we’re actually all better off when we’re more related to each other, when we’re more connected, when we care more for others, and sometimes that even includes our competition. Can you believe I’m saying that? But it’s true. Each of these different levels of relatedness can have a huge impact on you and your motivation as well as the people on your firm. So think carefully about how you’re relating to others and how you’re caring for them.

The third dimension of self-motivation theory is autonomy, and autonomy is our desire to have control over our own lives, our goals, our outcomes, and what we do. We want to understand the cause and effect on our lives and we want to have something to say about creating that cause and effect of course. Now this one’s a little bit tricky because we don’t necessarily want to create complete autonomy for anyone, and it’s also the case that anytime we reduce autonomy for people, it’s demotivating. But at the same time there’s a real benefit to operating in a world with some limits and with some guidance. We know that increasing options and choices tends to increase intrinsic motivation, but of course there’s a countervailing force here too.

Too many choices can be confusing and lead to indecision. That’s a bad thing to be sure. I’m also a big proponent of teaching our clients how to buy from us, which at some level is to say somewhat reducing their autonomy in that equation. I want them to know what the right way to buy his. What I will never do is try to tell them exactly what to do. I’ll tell them what I recommend. I’ll tell them if I believe they should buy from me, and I’ll tell them why that’s the case. I’m going to give them a real rational thought out justification and reason for it, but of course I’m not going to tell them what to do. It’s not going to work. It’ll probably have the opposite effect and it’s not how I want to be sold to either. So that’s just not the way I’m going to sell.

In addition to all of this trickiness with autonomy, there’s also the complication of the fact that we’re running a business. There are quotas and there are KPIs, and maybe you operate under a quota, or you’re given KPIs that you need to hit. They reduce the feeling of autonomy of course because they’re external motivators. They’re outside of us. We didn’t have any say in choosing them, but that’s just kind of the way it is.

Now what I will say is if you’re looking to increase your own autonomy, find ways to exercise your creativity and operate like no one else at your company or like no one else in your industry, coming up with creative solutions that are truly unique or different and of course, and maybe most importantly, actually work, lead to more of the outcomes that you want to see. Those are going to increase your motivation. Those are going to increase the motivation of other people at your firm. And for your team you can think about setting just the absolute basic goals like their expected output, but leave it up to them about how they want to achieve it.

Back to this idea about creativity, you set the goal, the constraint, the thing that you want to see from them. And it can be partly or totally up to them how they’re actually going to achieve that. Now the more autonomy you give someone, the more feeling of control they have and the more they remain motivated. Now again, it is this balancing act of giving enough parameters and enough limits to make sure everybody’s pointed in the right direction so that they at least understand the rules of the game, but also leaving enough autonomy so that there’s room for creativity so that there’s room for people deciding on their own the best way to achieve something which can lead to innovation and new ideas and new outcomes that otherwise wouldn’t be present. So make sure you’re giving enough autonomy to yourself and to the rest of your team.

Here are the key takeaways in today’s episode. Your motivation is both objective and subjective. And the subjective, the internal part, has the biggest effect on whether you stay motivated or not. Self-determination theory tells us how our internal motivation works and what to do about it. Developing mastery helps satisfy our need for validation and competence. Caring for others reinforces our need to relate. And autonomy is important to prove that our actions have real results that affect outcomes that we want.

That’s it for this episode of Modern Sales. In the next episode, I’ll be talking to Justin Welsh about how he approaches motivation for himself and his teams and how he thinks about selling products versus services. He sold both, and his answer is all about copywriting? Check out the next episode to hear what he has to say. It is a fantastic interview.

If you aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so by clicking the Subscribe or Follow button. You can also get notified of all podcast episodes by visiting Thanks to everyone who makes this podcast possible. Juan Perez is our editor and Mary Ann Nocum is our show assistant. Our theme and ad music is produced by me, Liston Witherill, and show music is by Logan Nicholson at Music for Makers as well as Epidemic Sound. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Liston Witherill of Serve Don’t Sell, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

Modern Sales Podcast