Top 10 Ways to Motivate Your Soldiers

In today’s post we are going to discuss how to motivate your Soldiers effectively.  I want to share some of my best tips on how to keep Soldiers motivated, even during difficult times.  Let’s get started.

Tip # 1: Reward Good Behavior and Punish Poor Behavior

As a leader, you must do BOTH of these activities.  When Soldiers meet or exceed the standard, they need to be praised and rewarded.  When they fail to meet the standards, they need to be punished and developed.  Most leaders forget to reward good behavior and focus all their time and energy on punishing poor performing Soldiers.  If you follow that strategy, you will fail miserably as a leader.

When you give your poor performing Soldiers all your attention, you neglect your superstars and high performing Soldiers.  Many of these “high caliber” Soldiers will wonder WHY they NEVER get noticed or rewarded for going above and beyond what is expected of them.  As a result, morale declines and many of these Soldiers will eventually leave the military.  Even worse, they might end up PATTERNING your behavior and doing the same things when they become leaders.

My best advice to you is to spend as much time rewarding good behavior as you do punishing poor performance.

Tip # 2: Teach Soldiers the Big Picture

Everyone I’ve ever met likes to know how their job (or mission) falls into the big picture.  Let’s face it, we all want to feel important and feel like we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.  As leaders, we need to sit down with our followers whenever possible and explain the big picture to them.

motivate your soldiersIn the Army, we normally have a TASK and PURPOSE in all mission orders.  This tells us what we must do and why we must do it.  Don’t make the mistake of all explaining why by saying “because I told you so.”  That statement is very ineffective and destroys morale in the process.  Once in a while you might need to do that, but don’t make it a habit.

Let me give you an example of how you could explain the big picture to your Soldier whenever you give them an assignment.  Let’s suppose you tell SPC Smith and PFC Edwards to clean the latrine.  You should tell them they need to clean the latrine because the Battalion Commander will inspect the armory at 1600 hours and the latrine is in bad shape right now.

This might not make your Soldiers EXCITED to do their mission, but at least they know WHY they are doing it.  I hope that makes sense.

Tip # 3: Say Thank You as Much as Possible

Saying thank you has huge, positive effects with morale and performance.  You should make it a point to say thank you at least 5-10 times a day to people who help you.  Not only is it good manners, but it makes people happy to hear thank you.  It shows that you appreciate what the other person is doing and that you notice their efforts.

By no means do you need to overdo it and say thank you hundreds of time to the same person each day.  But make sure that you do it often.  It shows that you are professional and have good manners.  Besides, so many people DON’T do it, that you will get noticed when you say those two big words: thank you.

Tip # 4: Be a Coach, Not a Dictator

Nobody likes a dictator.  I know the Army is not a democracy.  I understand that.  But that doesn’t mean you need to be a dictator either.  The best and most effective military leaders are more like a team captain than they are a dictator.  They lead by inspiring others and empowering them, not just by telling them what to do.

Sometimes, you need to roll up your sleeves and work with your Soldiers.  That way, they can see you working.  Also, it’s better to say “follow me” than go out and say “go get it done.”  Soldiers will respect you more for this and it will improve morale too.

Tip # 5: Get To Know Your Soldiers as People

You need to get to know your Soldiers as people.  That doesn’t mean you need to become buddy-buddy and be on a first name basis, but you do need to know a little bit about them. You should show an interest in their hobbies, their goals, their family, their interests and more.  You should ask them questions about these things so that they know that you care about them as a person too, not just a Soldier.

No one wants to feel like a number.  People want to know that you care about them and their well being.  Remember, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Tip # 6: Set a Good Example

As leaders, our Soldiers are always watching us.  We need to make sure that we set a good example at all times.  This means we need to look and act like a leader.  We need to be professional.  We need to do what we say and say what we do.  Don’t ask your Soldiers to do something and you go out and do the complete opposite.  Hold yourself to a higher standard than you hold everyone else to.

People want to follow a strong leader.  No one wants to follow a hypocrite, or someone who doesn’t hold themselves accountable to same standards they try to enforce on others.

Tip # 7: Help Them Advance Their Career

Your primary job as a leader is to DEVELOP your people.  You need to help your Soldiers advance their career.  You can do this through effective counseling and goal setting.  You should sit down with all of your Soldiers one-on-one and find out what their personal and career goals are.  Once you learn this information, you should help them create an action plan to reach their goals.

You should teach your Soldiers EXACTLY what they need to do to get promoted.  Tell them what schools they need, when they need them, when they will be eligible for promotion and what they can do to separate themselves from their peers.

Even if it means you lose one of your superstar Soldiers for a promotion to a new unit, that’s okay.  Your job is to help everyone be the best they can be, even if it affects you negatively.

If you don’t know much about goal setting, go to the library or local bookstore and read a couple books about the topic.  The information you learn will benefit you immensely.

Tip # 8: Allow Two-Way Communication

Communication should always flow up and down your organization.  If your Soldiers aren’t bringing their problems to you, it’s because they don’t trust you or respect you.  You need to make sure that the door is always open for your Soldiers to approach you.

Make sure that you don’t chastise or blackball your Soldiers for bringing a problem to you, even if their problem is with you!  Good leaders always lend a listening ear to the people they lead.

When you get information, don’t hoard it (unless you can’t share it).  Let your Soldiers know what is going on when you find out.  Shared information is power.  When you communicate effectively and communicate often, the rumors will die, morale with improve, and your Soldiers will respect you more.

Tip # 9: Set High Standards and Be Disciplined

All Soldiers want to belong to a unit with high standards and discipline.  No one joins the Army because they want to serve in a slacker unit with low standards.  As a leader, make sure you set high standards for yourself and everyone you lead.  Also, maintain a high level of discipline in your unit.  This goes a long way to help Soldier motivation.

People want to be part of an undefeated, state championship team, not a win-less junior varsity squad.  Never forget that.  Create a winning environment that challenges people, that people want to belong to, and that people are expected to perform at a high level.  This will help the motivation soar!  Remember, people rise to the level of expectations that you place on them.

Tip # 10: Have Fun at Work

I understand the Army has an important mission to fight and win the nation’s land wars.  I get that.  While being serious is vitally important, it’s also important to be able to laugh at yourself and have fun at work once in a while.  No one wants to work for a sourpuss.  No one wants to be in an organization where you can never laugh or have a little bit of fun.

Your job as a leader is to get the job done first!  But if you can do that well, you should also schedule some fun activities such as a family day, a Commander’s Cup Challenge, a historical site visit, or something that mixes things up from time to time.

While I was a Company Commander, we had a Ricky Chicken Award.  Ricky was a purple rubber chicken.  At the end of every drill weekend, people would nominate other people for the Ricky Chicken Award.  Whoever did or said the dumbest thing during drill weekend would get nominated.  Once we had a few nominations, the Soldiers voted on who they wanted to receive the award.  Whoever “won” the award would come to the front of formation and “pass the chicken.”

This had a huge impact on morale.  Soldiers looked forward to this every drill weekend.  I’ve been out of command three years now and my old unit still does the Ricky Chicken Award.  That speaks volumes!

Final Thoughts

In summary, there are many different ways to motivate your Soldiers.  Your job is to identify what motivates each person and then find ways to motivate them.  Some of my best tips are to reward good behavior and punish poor behavior, to teach Soldiers the big picture, to say thank you as much as possible, to be a coach not a dictator, to get to know your Soldiers as people, to set a good example, to help your Soldiers advance their career, to allow two-way communication, to set high standards and discipline and to have fun at work!  If you can incorporate any or all of these things among your followers, you will see their motivation levels skyrocket!

Do you have any other suggestions on motivating your soldiers? Do you have any questions? You can post them below. Thanks.

18 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Motivate Your Soldiers”

  1. All these tips are important, but I think #2 and #3 weigh pretty heavy.

    I am speaking from my own experience. I like to know the big picture and have it verbalized at times.

    In the service, and I’m prior service, you don’t work for money. That is part of the big picture. You do what you do for a bigger cause when you serve your country.

    When you have done your job and done it well, there are times that some form of a simple thank you goes a long way. It can be a simple pat on the back or a head nod with eye to eye contact.

    I never minded an objective “let’s do it better”. You can always improve over yesterday. But the positives of today also need to be pointed out.

  2. These are all good tips but for me, also, number six stands out the most. It is difficult to expect your soldiers, or any subordinates, to behave well if you are not. You might speak, think and behave however you wish in total privacy, but whatever you do as a leader will become an example of what is acceptable to all of those who look up to or report to you.

  3. I want to commend you on this post. These are some great tips on motivation that every leader should see. To me #6 is probably the most important. Our subordinates are watching and will do what we do. If we set a bad example, we are providing them the freedom to do the same bad things. I am also a huge fan of the have fun at work tip. So many leaders assume that work should always be serious and drab. A little fun can go a long ways.

  4. Kelvin, making things happen is an important way to motivate your soldiers. Such a skill gets positive attention. Charles, another thing about focusing only on the low performers and sometimes high performers is that the ones in the middle will continue to be business as usual, mediocre and average. They need to be motivated, too. The company commander or other leader needs to communicate to all levels of soldiers in the job. Plus, we all take turns performing low, medium and high in quality in our job, whether the leader of the team member.

    1. The real key is to find motivated people and hire them. Unfortunately, we don’t have that choice in the Army. At the end of the day, you have to figure out what motivates each person and use that thing to motivate them.

  5. This is one of my biggest weaknesses, motivating others. I am never a speaker, nor am I the biggest stud that can inspire my soldiers. One thing I know I did really well while I was a platoon leader is making things happen. What I mean is that soldiers in my platoon are actually getting promoted (5/16), go to school (5/16) and top platoon to get things done (admin, medical and training). All these sound basic and simple but prior to my arrival my platoon has been known as the ‘last minute platoon’ by the AGR and 1SG; few to no promotion in the platoon, only 3 NCOs running it. My final accomplishment is fixing a soldier’s flag that has been in his file for 4.5 years, which only took me 1.5 years. This accomplishment motivated the soldier, especially he has been a PV1 for 4.5 years.

    1. It sounds like you did some great things as a Platoon Leader, Kelvin. As the leader, you don’t have to be a good speaker or stud on PT, weapons qual, etc. You just have to show up, lead by example and show your followers that you care. If you can do that, you will accomplish great things in any duty position.

  6. Neil O'Donnell

    One of the ways I found to be an effective motivator is to let those in my charge to know of my struggles and past failures. Reminding subordinates you are “human” will help them conquer obstacles and let them see you as trustworthy, as someone they will seek the approval of. Saying thank you, as you suggest, is also one of the best ways to motivate. The amount of motivation created by saying “thank you” is immeasurable.

    1. This is a great way to connect with your followers, Neil. I did the same thing. We’ve all made mistakes. We’re all human beings. None of us are perfect. When you let your Soldiers know a few mistakes you made in the past, they will relate to you better and respect you more.

  7. It’s really neat to read these tips and be able to relate them to how I am as an educator. When I was teaching, there was never just one side. Discipline and punishment for bad behavior and rewards and praise for good behavior. And if I didn’t lead by example, I would’ve been able to count on disorder in the classroom!

    1. You sound like a good teacher, Lauren. Rewarding good behavior is just as important as punishing poor behavior. If you only do one of those two things you won’t get anywhere near the results you would if you did both.

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. Jonathan Currea

        This was a great read. I will put this into practice as I am a new 1SG, stationed at FT. DRUM, NY. I am currently assessing the Soldiers, moral and disciple of the unit and have come to the decision that “assessing time is over”, it is time to Lead the unit to be the best it can be and show this Young generation of Soldiers that they are valuable and cared for, which I feel will lead to their trust in their Leadership. It will also lead to Soldiers taking Pride in their organization, We Depoly soon. Once again, thank you for this post.

  8. I am the type of person who follows by example, so for me it would be crucial that whoever is leading me act the same way I would in certain instances. I don’t want to follow someone who isn’t truly fit to lead.

    1. Unfortunately, no two people act the same way in a given situation. Good leaders are their best when the pressure is on. They set a strong personal example for their followers and they encourage their followers.

      Thanks for the comment, Kevin.


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