We Can’t Motivate Anyone


One of the most common questions I get as a business consultant is; “how can I motivate my people?”

I shudder at the thought of how much business I have lost when I answer this question with, “You really can’t.”


Surely as business leaders we need to find a way to help our people to give their best. Let’s face it, that is good for the company, the clients, co-workers and even for their families. But how can we “motivate” to give their best? When I say, “we can’t” what I really mean is that typical motivation methods just don’t work.

Science has proven over and over again that typical motivational tools, like; incentives and rewards, in most cases, don’t produce better results. In fact most of these studies show that the higher the reward, the worse the performance. (For those of you, who might doubt this, please check out my attributions, listed below. This is a well proven fact and correlated in numerous studies.)

Now if we are speaking of a simple repetitive task, yes, a consistent reward will produce predictable results. But for cognitive, higher functioning tasks and responsibilities, typical motivating tactics will fail every time. So if you want anything other than repetitive, manual labor, if you want analytical, creative or decision-oriented work, rewards can actually backfire.

Ultimately rewards just motivate people to, well… get the Reward!  When the rewards go away, the motivation ends. Makes sense right?

Engaged, sustained, higher level performance does not occur by manipulating others through incentives, contests or rewards. It is less about “what people GET” and more about “How people FEEL.” Motivation is not a mathematical calculation it is rather an emotional mindset. Now I do need to add that this doesn’t relieve us from paying competitive wages and benefits. If you fail to do that, no motivation methods (emotional or otherwise) will work.

Here are some basic tips on how you can create an environment where people FEEL motivated. When I say “create and environment” I’m not talking about office amenities like; a pool table, snack bar, gourmet coffee cart and dimly-lit conversational pit! I’m speaking of the “emotional environment which we create.”

1. Stop Bribing People – I once had a client who summed-up motivation like this; “Their motivation is their salary!” Hmm, not too successful. Honestly though most motivators, incentives or rewards are nothing more than bribes. Paying people well is important but I have often witnessed that continued pay hikes, bonuses and freebies actually result in lower performance. They amount to nothing more than entitlements. That is getting something for just showing-up. Any compensation increases need to be directly linked to outcomes in terms of both behavior and performance. The goal of the leader in terms of motivation is to incite a behavioral change which has a dramatic impact on performance. We can’t change someone’s behavior but THEY CAN! The idea is to create the kind feels that make them decide to change.

2. Create the Right Feelings – We often think of the workplace as less emotional, more formal and serious. But it doesn’t have to be that way. People are motivated about something they feel strongly about more so than money. Dan Pink, an expert in motivation says that “for complex tasks we are more motivated by the need for purpose, mastery and autonomy.” As leaders we can leverage this by helping our people to “feel good” about their role, responsibilities and accomplishments. This also promotes creativity and teamwork. If you consider this, it is diametrically opposed to the carrot and the stick. Dale Carnegie said to “give people a fine reputation to live-up-to and they might surprise you in the end”

3. Encourage Progress – Sometimes the reaching the destination is over-rated. Help people to reflect on what they have accomplished SO FAR. Persistent people spend twice as long thinking about their accomplishments. In this super-speedy, techno-crazed blur of a society, the thing they crave most is sincere, honest recognition. There’s no time for that soft, mushy stuff right? Now I’m NOT talking about incentives, rewards and gifts, I am speaking of a “good word” when deserved. It is amazing how powerful this can be. Send a written note. Yea like with a pen and paper. You remember those? Life satisfaction is 22% more likely for those with a steady stream of accomplishments (Orlick 1998).
Remember that people are engaged and motivated with “why” we do things more so than “what” we do says Simon Senek, author of Start with Why. Think of Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream, or John F. Kennedy’s, “It’s not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

No one performs at optimal performance when they are being nagged. I hope these tips will help you to lead and manage with great creativity, sensitivity and produce better outcomes.

Here’s my story which I hope creates a feeling for you and spurs you to take action. I am part of a fundraising group here in Redondo Beach and our aim is to refurbish our children’s library. They have outdated computers, worn furniture and walls that need paint. We are raising $30,000 to improve the environment to motivate kids to learn. I’d like to ask for your help. If everyone who is reading this donated $10 we would exceed our goal. So how about it? Skip a few Starbucks this week and help some kids learn. Donate at www.parsonsprojectforkids.com

Thank You

Mark Deo

Attributions: Time Article (http://time.com/53748/how-to-motivate-people-4-steps-backed-by-science/), TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation Dan Pink – http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en, Study by Bashaw and Grant 1994, Orlick 1998 Study of Satisfaction, Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Simon Sinek, Start with Why.

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