Can you motivate other people?

One of the great leadership challenges is how to motivate people to do what they need to do. For a long time most people thought motivation was done through sticks and carrots. If people did not perform they were punished, and if they did perform they would be rewarded. Such external motivation may work for a time but it’s usually only temporary. Long-term, such external motivations may actually do more harm than good.

The best motivation comes from within a person. They perform their tasks because they find pleasure in doing so. They believe they are doing something worthwhile and so they keep at it.

This past weekend I led a group of leaders in goal-setting. During our lunch break some of us began talking about reading when I mentioned that I try to read about 50 books a year. Some of the people were stunned. They responded they were lucky to read one or two books a year. When we returned to the goal-setting exercise I discussed the system I used in setting goals. It is a very thorough process that I follow, and I could tell that I was losing some of the people, especially the ones who admitted earlier they didn’t read much.

Why do I read as much as I do and follow such a disciplined process when setting goals? The answer is that I enjoy it and believe that both practices are beneficial to my personal and professional growth. Inwardly, I am motivated to do these things the way I do because of my commitment to lifelong learning and growth, and I know these practices will help me do both.

Frankly, I do not think one can motivate another person. We can create a climate in which the person can motivate himself or herself, but even that doesn’t work all the time. Anyone who has ever had a two-year-old child has learned that!  We can help a person work in areas in which he or she is gifted and cares about and give them work that matters. It’s pretty hard for a person to remain motivated for very long if their only job is removing staples from incoming mail. However, when a passionate person is given a task that truly impacts the lives of other people that person is likely to be internally motivated to do the best job possible.

Another thing leaders can do is to recognize and publicly acknowledge the excellent work a person does. I recently read a story about the great quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, who made a key block in a game that helped his team win the game. When the team gathered together to review the game film the following day the coach praised several of the players on the team but never mentioned Tarkenton, After the team meeting the quarterback asked his coach why he never said anything about the block he made. The coach responded that because Tarkenton always gave everything he had on the field he didn’t feel he needed to praise him for that play. Tarkenton told the coach, “If you ever want me to do it again, you need to.”

We are often told that what gets measured gets done. I would add to that what gets praised gets repeated. When leaders fail to recognize those who are doing great work it is very hard for those people to stay motivated regardless of how much they enjoy what they are doing. We all enjoy being praised for our excellent work.

One more thing leaders can do to help people be internally motivated: Treat people as individuals. I worked on an assembly line for 12 years. It required little internal motivation to put part A on part B as the line continued down the track. Many of the things we assembled were missing parts or had to be set off at the end of the track to be repaired. Most of the workers did an OK job, but there was little incentive or motivation to work at their best. The mindset was that we were there for eight hours to do a job for which we would be paid, and then we could go home and do whatever we enjoyed doing. That mindset does not bring out the best in people.

Today, robots do a great deal of the tedious assembly work in many plants. That frees up people to do more challenging and interesting work. but too many companies still want to enforce blanket policies on everyone without taking into account the different personalities among their employees. Those companies that are successful in bringing out the best in their people are those who give their employees great leeway in how they do their jobs. In turn, their employees are often highly motivated to do their best work. It’s a win for both.

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