Why keep trying to motivate people when you can’t?

Why keep trying to motivate people when you can’t?

“You can’t motivate someone else — motivation is an inside job” is a widely accepted leadership axiom. So why do managers keep trying to motivate people from the outside in?
19 June 2023

Why do they attempt to manipulate behavior by incentivizing goals with tangible and intangible rewards? Why do they praise, hand out tokens and award badges to drive good behavior, hoping to perpetuate it? 

And when leaders run out of carrots (or people get tired of them), why resort to the stick? Why apply pressure, instill fear and make threats (often without realizing that’s what they’re doing)?

If you can relate to the questions above, you are not alone. Leaders often whisper the truth of their experience to me — they know these traditional tactics aren’t effective for motivating people. 

I propose two answers to why you might continue relying on the same tactics even when your lived experience shows you they fall apart in the long run and impede creativity and well-being (and more) in the short run.

Answer #1: You’re desperate

Have you ever quelled a child’s public tantrum by giving in to their demands — even if it betrayed your parental instincts and child-rearing values? Out of desperation, you rationalized that your solution was necessary to stop an embarrassing public display.

The pressure to hold people accountable for performance at work can lead to the same desperation mentality. Whether it’s a time constraint, a sense of urgency or frustration at someone’s poor performance, you follow the path of least resistance, which in our workplace culture leads to incentives and rewards (carrots) or pressure and threats (sticks). All those methods result in external and imposed motivational outlooks, proven to be inferior forms of motivation.

Despite the preponderance of empirical and anecdotal proof that carrots and sticks generate low-quality and unsustainable energy to act (motivation), you default to traditional tactics out of desperation. This leads to Answer #2 for why you might continue externally motivating people when you know it doesn’t work.

Answer #2: You’re unaware of your alternatives

A sales manager awkwardly took me aside during a break, explaining that he didn’t realize I’d be at the meeting. He was about to announce the incentives to his sales team for selling a new product — and he knew what I thought about incentives. 

Intrigued, I asked the manager why he was offering rewards to salespeople for doing their job. Were the salespeople reticent to sell the product? Why? Were they lazy, or did they have competing priorities? Was the product deficient? Was the timing for the release wrong?

After a series of “No” answers, the exasperated manager finally exclaimed, “It’s just what we always do!” He was held accountable for motivating his sales team to sell the new product and didn’t know another way to make it happen.

The good news for the sales manager is that motivation science provides an alternative to “motivating people.” The key is to focus on creating a workplace that fulfills people’s foundational psychological needs for choice, connection and competence required for optimal motivation. 

The even better news is that you can develop the leadership capacities to encourage choice, deepen connection and build competence.

A better answer: Fully appreciate your capacity to improve the quality of someone’s motivation

Research is compelling: You can’t motivate people, but your leadership is critical to the type of motivation people experience. If you’re a leader who wants to avoid the desperation of motivating people with outdated tactics, it’s time to recognize the role your leadership plays in shaping their motivational outlook.

When you develop the capacity to encourage choice, deepen connection and build competence, you dramatically improve the likelihood that people will achieve their goals for the right reasons and experience well-being in their pursuit. 

Maybe it’s time to stop trying to motivate people. Try focusing your leadership on creating conditions conducive to people experiencing optimal motivation so they can achieve their goals and flourish at the same time — no carrots or sticks required. 

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