You Know You Can’t Motivate Anyone, Right?

Executives often ask me how to motivate employees who don’t carry out the things they’re asked to do, from behavioral requirements like showing up on time to work quality requirements like capturing customer source codes in the contact center or at the store register.

These execs typically want to know the best incentive program to “create motivation.” But buying motivation is only possible up to a point. When pain or prizes are the only options, few people will care enough to do what you want done consistently or well.

Motivation Is in the Mind of the Beholder

People will always do whatever seems to them like the best thing, given their perceptions of themselves, their job, boss, and what they believe is expected of them. They act based on their own needs and beliefs about what should or should not be done, personal accomplishment and success, and growth and development.

Some employees truly want their manager or colleagues to be happy with them. Others want independence to do things their own way vs. the “right” way or “the company way.” Still others only do what feels consistent with their self-image, or to avoid looking stupid or weak to themselves.

We’re all motivated by something, all the time, but what we’re motivated to do may not be exactly what someone else wants. So instead of rewarding or punishing, focus on creating conditions in which people will motivate themselves to take the actions you want.

What’s On Your Mind?

As a manager, you have to learn what matters to each employee. How can you figure out what’s most compelling to them?

Start with observing and questioning. For example: “I’ve noticed that you seem to prefer X even though I’ve asked you for Y. Tell me about that, would you?” Present your observations as perceptions rather than as absolute facts, and make it clear that you want to understand their views better.

Or try this: “I don’t understand the way you tackle these reports well enough, because I know you want to get it right, but it keeps coming out wrong. Could we go over your method together, or is there some other problem I need to know about?”

Motivate Others By Motivating Yourself

If the fit or the mechanics aren’t right or there’s a structural impediment, it’s hard to persuade people to change beyond a certain point. When a person is happy as an individual contributor, or is a generalist when you need a specialist (or vice versa), no amount of “motivation” will get them to adjust. Not unless they adjust their perception of what they want under the circumstances.

Some people need a higher purpose. Others specifically need to have confidence in you and your leadership. Look for themes that might be productive different individuals, whether it’s belonging to a team, treating business problems as puzzles to be solved, or improving things for others.

At minimum, you can always show — and tell — just how motivated you are! And you can explain why what you care about is important to the business, and could be important to employees if they’re willing to see it from your perspective.

Onward and upward,


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