FounderFuel: Inspiring a culture of continuous-improvement in your team

It goes without saying that startups thrive on ambitious, driven talent: we need our people to be creative, driving forces towards performance and progress. As startup leaders we want to maintain and encourage that – and how we approach personal development and feedback can have a big impact. Get it wrong and we can de-motivate. Get it right and you can fuel a whole culture of continuous-improvement in your team.

A culture of continuous improvement becomes even more vital as a team scales – as we explored in one of our recent Scaleup Sessions – where we talked about the changes and challenges of the post-Series-A growth spurt. A common theme for all our founders was the impact of the dramatic team growth; suddenly you as a founding team can no longer have a direct and meaningful relationship with everyone. Over time, that means your passion, drive and influence gets diluted, so we have to find new ways to motivate and inspire that startup pace and drive we need. That’s when this theory of motivation can help us.

A motivation theory for startups

In the book Drive, Daniel Pink consolidates four decades of scientific research looking into motivation and identifies two different types:

  • Internal: Motivation comes from within
  • External: Motivation comes from others

External motivation is the carrot and stick approach – driven by rewards and punishments – labelled by Pink as Motivation 2.0. Designed for a world of factories, it drives motivation when the job includes a set of instructions and routines. Rarely something we find in a startup team!

Internal motivation is what is proven to work in jobs that involve creativity and experimentation, like startup team roles. Pink defines this as Motivation 3.0 and it is driven by a combination of three important factors:

  1. Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery: the urge to get better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose: the yearning to work on something bigger than ourselves

Purpose tends to be pretty easy for us in startups – we identify and communicate the big mission, and this creates that sense of being part of something bigger to the team. By contrast, Autonomy and Mastery are less natural in a startup environment. We all know as founders it can be challenging to step back and fully empower others (hence our Empowerment Tool for founders). Mastery too can be elusive if we’re not conscious about developing our people.

Motivation 3.0 plays into Maslow’s self-determination theory (SDT): humans have an innate drive to be autonomous and self-determined. As a startup leader, we can utilise this driver to fuel performance and because your people are more motivated they’re likely to stay for longer too!

Utilising Autonomy and Mastery to inspire a culture of continuous improvement

As startup leaders we want to create high-performing teams. A critical component of a high performing team is a culture and appetite for continuous improvement – at a functional level, but also at a people level – where everyone in the team has a yearning to do great things and continue to build and improve themselves.

The first thing that comes to mind when we talk about people development is feedback (something that many of us find challenging) but what if there was another way? A way that taps into Motivation 3.0?

Intrinsically we are all more motivated to make a change and develop ourselves if we believe in the need and have agency over the solution – it is tapping into both Autonomy and Mastery. This means that adopting a coaching-style during feedback and personal development conversations can lend itself very well to fast-tracking results.

Take a moment to try it on yourself: Think of something you did recently…

  • What do you think went well?
  • What challenged you?
  • If you could do it again, what would you do differently?
  • When you do that, what impact will you think that will have? What will be different?
  • What one thing are you going to take away and action?

These questions are powerful for high-achieving ambitious types. We rarely want to settle for good, or even great, we’re intrinsically motivated to get even better.

In startups we tend to hire those self-starting types too – so with many this approach will unlock that same passion and enthusiasm to do just one thing even better next time. Thus nurturing an environment of continuous improvement – which is exactly what we need in a scaling startup.

Try this flexible framework with those in your team…

FounderCircle members can access this as a downloadable worksheet here.

This flexible framework acts as a starting point for effective feedback conversations. As with our other coaching frameworks it empowers others to seek their own solutions, meaning they tend to be much more motivated by the solutions because of their agency over them. Use it in more formal performance reviews or really embed it into the day-to-day by initiating feedback and improvement conversations on everything from big presentations to meetings – to encourage a real culture of continuous improvement in your team. 

Tips to practise with…

It might feel awkward at first but try it and then find your own words that feel natural to you. Over time, as the habit kicks in you may find teammates volunteering their improvements in advance, or asking each other.

Always avoid using this model if really you want to give feedback! If you have direct feedback, give the Direct feedback Framework a try instead, as it will encourage a more open, honest discussion. FounderCircle members can access the Direct Feedback Framework worksheet in the Hub too.

We never want feedback to become a dreaded topic, so be sure to use the framework for just positive feedback, at least as often as you add your own suggestion to it too.

Lead from the front by modelling the behaviours: The higher you get in an organisation, the less feedback you receive, but you can model the behaviours you want in the team by following the framework yourself. Share answers to the questions with those around you, so that they can explicitly see you always looking for continuous improvement, and it’ll inspire others to do the same. 


This article is part of a series on feedback and conflict:

Boost performance with regular positive feedback

Co-founder conflict resolution

Co-founder retros

A simple framework for effective feedback with your team

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

About the FounderFuel Series: Actionable tools and bite-sized insights to empower entrepreneurs and founders to get the best from themselves and those around them as startup and scaleup leaders. Get the fuel direct to your inbox by signing up here.

At weare3Sixty we believe in supporting the humans behind the world’s ambitious startups and our mission is to make sure that every founder and startup leader in the ecosystem has the support and skills to reach their full potential as resilient, high-performing leaders.

Here you’ll find 1:1 founder coaching, team coaching and team training all dedicated to the unique ride that is starting up and scaling up. Not only that, with our group-coaching FounderCircles® you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other talented founders on the journey too – all committed to fuelling themselves, their teams and each other for the ride.

Calling all accelerators and investment partners: We work in partnership with investors, accelerators and incubators to complement programmes of support and learning with the human side of startup performance. Find out more here.

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