The Myth Of Motivating People

by Sep 21, 2018Leadership

Either They’ve Got it or They Don’t – But There is Something We Can Do 

Many leaders I encounter think that the most important part of their job is to motivate people on a daily basis. But that’s simply a myth because you can’t motivate people. It’s impossible — motivation is intrinsic — and we need to stop pretending that we can do it. 

When it comes to motivation, people either have it or don’t. 

If you don’t believe me, then try motivating that underperforming employee when you get back to your office. You’ll need to infuse them with energy day after day, week after week–and nothing changes. Getting tired yet? Now, what if you have five unmotivated people? Or 10? Or more? I’m getting tired of writing about it. 

Trying to motivate people simply isn’t sustainable. It sucks the energy out of you. 

So what do we do, fire all the leaders in our business and save all their salaries? Nope. 

What you want to do instead is to find people who have knowledge, energy, and want to do a good job (the skill and the will according to the firm G.H. Smart), and then create the kind of conditions they need to do their best work. 

One element of our job should be to eliminate the roadblocks for your team. That might be eliminating a process that’s slowing them down. Or maybe you need to take care of environmental factors like lighting or temperature. Or even help resolve some interpersonal conflict that is dragging people down. 

A second element is to be recognizing and rewarding the behaviors you want everyone to emulate. There is nothing more powerful for an employee than when they get recognition from their boss for doing the right thing. Yes, it’s kind of Skinnerian but it is effective. 

But we still find managers that walk around thinking that they are motivators. What they’re really doing is making emotional connections with their people as they try to make them feel good. Yet no matter how much of an interest you take in an employee, or how much you know about their dog, it is unlikely to change the behavior of that person and their intrinsic motivation level. 

To be clear, I think it is important for a leader to make sincere efforts to get to know their people, there is a lot of research that people stay at a company for the relationship they have with their co-workers and boss. But you can’t confuse this with motivation. 

In a prior job, I had two people working for me named John and Dave. John was a good performer, but I always thought he could do more than he was. While I tried to encourage him and instill in him some of my energy, he was stuck where he was for energy and motivation. In fact, my nickname for him was Eeyore (the character from Winnie the Pooh) due to his pace and outlook. No amount of energy I poured into him was going to change his motivational level. Eventually, I had to make peace with that fact and make a decision about whether that was good enough or not. 

Dave, on the other hand, was a dynamo of motivation. He had more initiative and ambition than the next three people combined–and sometimes he could get ahead of himself. Once in a while, I had to coach Dave to slow down a bit. Over time, I learned that all I had to do was point Dave in the right direction and hope he didn’t break too much China in his pursuit of the objective. Because, in the end, I’d much rather have a Dave working for me, someone who charges ahead on his or her own power and who I’d have to pull back on the reins sometimes, than a John, who could never really get himself jumpstarted. 

When you think about your role as a leader, forget about motivating people. Remember: it’s a myth. Find the people who are internally motivated and then spend your time as a leader creating the environment for them to excel. Then recognize and reward their behaviors–which will only fuel better performance from your most already motivated employees.