Many leaders have it all wrong. Rather than trying to motivate the people they lead, they just need to stop demotivating them.
This is crucial for leaders to learn, or else they will hurt people, discourage them, and lead less effective teams. The truth is that demands, threats, and promises of reward don’t motivate people to work harder or better—in fact, they demotivate people.
Instead, Scripture shows—and psychological and sociological research confirms—a surprising and counter-intuitive truth: grace motivates.
GRACE IS COMPELLING
God’s grace is overflowing and abundant.1 It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: “The love of Christ compels us!” (2 Cor. 5:14).
The law threatens and demands, but does not motivate. This is not to discount the value of the law. The law of God is “perfect, true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7–9) and “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12), but it does nothing to produce the life it requires. As Paul Zahl writes, “The Bible declares the law to be good and right (Ps. 119, 1 Tim. 1:8, Rom. 3:31, Rom. 7:12–16) but then with one great insight deprives the law of any lasting capacity to do us any good (Rom. 7:24–25).”
The law does not enable people to do what it demands. The Ten Commandments are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—but not the means with which to obey them. The Apostle Paul writes, “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). The law cannot generate what it commands. Law does not deliver what it mandates—but grace does.
The Bible says this in a variety of ways:
- Matthew 10:8: “You received without paying; give without pay.”
- Romans 2:4: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”
- Romans 6:14: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
- Titus 2:11–12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.”
GRACE IS PRACTICAL
The shocking and life-giving truth that grace motivates is not just for the pulpit and counseling sessions. It has massive implications for leadership in all realms. Grace is practical.
In his TED Talk on “the surprising science of motivation,” business writer and speaker Daniel Pink shows how social science confirms this ironic reality. Research shows that traditional incentives, or “extrinsic motivators” (rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks) actually don’t work to motivate people. In fact, they decrease performance and results. What actually motivates people are “intrinsic motivators,” inward desires that drive our behavior. Pink singles out three primary intrinsic motivators that, if cultivated, lead to better performance and more personal satisfaction:
- Autonomy: The urge to direct our lives.
- Mastery: The desire to excel at something that matters.
- Purpose: The yearning for our actions to serve something greater than ourselves.
So in leadership and business, rewards and punishments demotivate people. People are instead motivated by freedom, the desire for excellence, and the desire for their actions to have meaning.
What this means is the carrot and the stick produce the opposite of what they intend—the more you try to incentivize people, the poorer their performance becomes. Once people’s basic financial needs are met, motivation is driven most by a desire to connect to something larger than themselves, rather than the desire to get more material rewards.
Those who lead by grace set the tone for entire teams and organizations. Grace expressed as love, acceptance, and understanding increases performance in the workplace. Peter Bregman explains:
An organization performs best when the people in the organization know they can trust and depend on each other. Then they break out of silos. They take accountability for their own mistakes instead of blaming each other. They surface problems before they become major obstacles. But if people spend their energy hiding their feelings, that energy will leak out in negative and insidious ways, sabotaging your efforts and theirs.
A 2010 Gallup study analyzed 32,000 businesses and found that happier, more engaged employees significantly increased productivity and profitability for their organizations:
After talking with thousands of workers, Gallup identified 12 issues that best predict employee performance, and none included pay raises or bonuses. For many decades, researchers have known that such incentives don’t provide lasting motivation, said Michael Cole, who teaches leadership at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School. “The good feeling wears off, and everything resets,” he said. So what lasts? Cole said three things energize a workplace for the long run: When employees feel as if they have control over their work, are contributing to a larger purpose and have a chance to learn and grow.
GRACE IN REAL LIFE
For pastors and ministry leaders, the principle that grace motivates ought to permeate our lives, work, and leadership. This means when you want to see better performance from your staff, don’t threaten demotions or probation; instead, provide security, offer freedom for self-direction, and help them see the larger significance of their work. If you want your children to be more obedient (not just compliant), don’t give them threats, but talk about Jesus’ obedience on their behalf and dazzle them with grace. And when you want to see more faithfulness in your congregation, don’t just hammer them with the demands of the law; rather, tell them about Jesus’ faithfulness on our behalf, even and especially when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). You will be amazed at the fruit the Holy Spirit produces when you focus on grace, rather than threats and incentives. Grace motivates.