Motivation Is A Joke

Can you really motivate someone else? Really? Really really?

Of all the questions I get asked after presentations or during workshops, probably the most frequent is, “How can I motivate this person (ie slacker) I have in my team?” Or variations of that same query born of frustration. It being the 21st century and all, and given the calibre (generally) of the clients with whom I choose to work, it’s not like these are impersonal, command-and-control drill-sergeant-types. Mostly, they’re reasonable people with a fairly good idea of how to work with most people. You know, like you.

One of the little rituals I get going during my sessions is that the answer to most questions a leader faces is, “It depends.” (Don’t knock it. You have to be there and it does make a good point at the time.) BUT this time with this question, my answer is, “You can’t.” Usually I’d say something provocative like that simply to be provocative and generate debate etc but increasingly I truly think that’s the answer and thinking the opposite can only lead to behaviours that ain’t going to work for anyone concerned.

Whatever motivates me (and I’ve yet to consistently work that out myself) may not only not motivate you, it can have a wide range of alternative effects, including the opposite.

I don’t want to get all Clinton on you and start defining what I mean by ‘motivation’ and ‘can’t’ (or in Clinton’s case – ‘shouldn’t’) but you might be getting upset as you think you’re a great motivator or you were once impacted by someone you felt was a great motivator or you heard that your favourite sports team brought in a former champion at halftime for a speech that motivated them to a win.

You might inspire people, as might that CD you heard or that halftime speech but that isn’t true behaviour-influencing, improvement-driving, long-term motivation. Motivation is a set of chemical and electrical actions in a certain part of the brain that I can’t spell that over time, through repetition and reinforcement, establishes an easily replicable pattern. Some people are highly motivated to eat fried foods, watch Battlestar Galactica or collect teaspoons. No one gave them a ‘motivational’ CD or a speech. It’s all about neurons, synapses and repetition. The bad news is that you’re not a brain. You cannot personally and directly motivate people. The good news is that you can influence. It’s a pedantic but important difference.

So, I’m being slightly disingenuous with my stark, “You can’t!” Leaders can certainly recruit people whose internal motivations suit the team’s. Leaders can ensure that recruits’ personal goals are already aligned with the team’s so YOU don’t need to DO ANYTHING TO THEM. It might take a bit longer to start with but its more effective and less work for you in the long run. Leaders can certainly recruit people who fit with the other team members and thus nurture a culture where motivation can occur amongst themselves. Leaders, to the extent that they can, should pay a salary and provide a physical environment that doesn’t demotivate.

Again, maybe I’m being a bit Clintony, but let’s reframe the question. Rather than ask what you can do to motivate someone else, observe and experiment how you might be able to connect with whatever internal motivations this person already has. (I’m assuming you’ve inherited this person. Ideally, you’d have put in the work up front and recruited people who are self-motivated for your team and fit. To not do that, just to fill a vacancy, will cause more problems long-term than it solves in the short-term.)

Maybe I’ve begun to convince you that motivation isn’t something you can DO to someone else? If nothing else today, I’ve invented an adjective, ‘Clintony.’ (Or, is it an adverb?)

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About Terry Williams - The Brain-Based Boss

I'm all about engaging people and helping you engage yours to influence behaviour to improve results - at work and at home. Maybe you're a manager, a salesperson, a leader, a parent, a presenter or an event organiser? You need to grab your people's attention, create some rapport, be memorable and influence behaviour change. How can we do that? I'm originally a trainer by trade, turned manager, turned comedian and partway back again. Author of 'THE GUIDE: How to kiss, get a job & other stuff you need to know', I write and speak about how to engage people, be they employees, family or yourself. How can we connect with people’s own internal motivations and help them use their own inner passions to drive towards productivity, success and happiness? And hopefully have a few laughs along the way... As a trainer facilitating learning and development in others, I find myself drawing on my own extensive business experience. I specialise in the delivery of high impact, customised training solutions for organisations that are serious about improving the performance and lives of their people.

Posted on October 21, 2011, in Behaviour, Influence, Leadership, Motivating Employees, Motivation and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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