Stop Trying to Motivate People

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work


People are always motivated. The question is not if, but why they are motivated.

Those two lines immediately stand out in the opening pages of Susan Fowler’s book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging.

Do you understand the principles of motivation?

If you do, you will tap into a leadership success shortcut that will help you create an organization that performs above expectations.

Susan Fowler is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies and a professor at the University of San Diego. Her research into the science of motivation is important for all leaders to understand and employ. I recently asked her about her work.



Understand Motivational Differences

You’re an expert on motivation. You say that everyone is motivated, but everyone is motivated differently. Would you share an example of this from your experience?

An important truth emerges when we explore the nature of motivation. People are always motivated. The question is not if, but why they are motivated.

The motivation—or energy and impetus—a person brings to any action can be qualitatively different. Some reasons people are motivated tend to promote well-being for themselves and others—and unfortunately, some reasons don’t.

Motivation that comes from choosing to do something is different from motivation that comes from having to do it.

Motivation generated from values, purpose, love, joy, or compassion is different from motivation generated from ego, power, status, or a desire for external rewards.

Motivation to compete because of a desire to excel (where the score serves as feedback on how successfully you are growing, learning, and executing) is different from competing for the sake of besting someone else, to impress, or gain favors.

One of the primary reasons motivating people doesn’t work is our naïve assumption that motivation is something a person has or doesn’t have. This leads to the erroneous conclusion that the more motivation a person has, the more likely she will achieve her goals and be successful. When it comes to motivation, it is too simplistic and even unwise to assume that more is better. As with friends, it isn’t how many friends you have, it is the quality and types of friendships that matter.

Imagine you are a sales manager. You wonder if your sales reps are motivated. You look at the mid-quarter sales reports for your two highest selling reps and conclude, yes, they are both highly motivated. What you might fail to notice is that they are motivated differently. The reason one rep works hard is to win the sales contest, be seen as number one, and to make the promised bonus. The reason the other rep works hard is because he values your products and services, his efforts are connected to a noble purpose, and he enjoys problem solving with his clients. The science of motivation provides compelling evidence that there are major implications for the reps’ different types of motivation. The quality of their energy affects short-term results and long-term stamina.



Uncover an Individual’s Motivation

How do you uncover someone’s motivation?

Managers can guide people through a conversation that helps individuals explore their feelings related to their task, goal, or situation and reveals their current motivational outlook.

Do they have a negative or positive sense of well-being? Listen to clues in their language; watch their non-verbal body language. (Do they use phrases such as, I have to or I get to? Do they appear defeated, defiant, and defensive or inspired and joyful?)

Is the individual experiencing low or high quality of psychological needs? (Does this person feel in control and recognize they have choices, feel supported and have a sense of purpose regarding the situation, and feel they have the ability to navigate the challenges posed by the situation?)

Is the individual demonstrating low- or high-quality self-regulation? (Is this person mindful, making a values-based decision, or linking the situation to a higher purpose?)

Is the individual’s motivational outlook suboptimal (disinterested, external, or imposed) or optimal (aligned, integrated, or inherent)?



What has the science of new motivation uncovered in recent years?

One of the great breakthroughs in motivation science is the discovery that our basic human nature is to thrive.

Despite reports that 70% or more of our employees are disengaged or actively disengaged, it’s time we awakened to this truth: Nobody wants to be bored or disengaged. We appreciate meaningful challenges. We want to contribute, feel fulfilled, and grow and learn every day. No matter what our situation—or age—our basic nature is the desire to thrive.

And now, because of the most groundbreaking research in the history of motivation, we know how to promote thriving. It’s not money, power, or status. Not promotions, perks, or driving for results. Not pressure, tension, or fear.

The source of our thriving is optimal motivation based on satisfying three basic psychological needs for autonomy, for relatedness, and for competence. These three needs are as essential to our human thriving as the “big three biological needs” for water, food, and sex. They are essential nutriments for our wellbeing regardless of gender, generation, race, or culture.



Motivation & Money

Money is often linked with motivation, with many thinking this is the primary motivator. Why is this? How are money and motivation linked?

Are people motivated by money? Yes. But, as with other external motivators such as power and status, people are not optimally motivated by money. There is a large and ever-growing body of research demonstrating that more than results, creativity and sustained productivity suffer when people are motivated to act by money as a reward. The individual suffers, too. They do not experience a sense of well-being.

People continue to be motivated by money because they don’t understand healthy alternatives. Money is like junk food motivation. You get an immediate spike of energy, but the suboptimal motivation can’t sustain your energy for long—you crash. Suboptimal motivation in the form of money, power, and status doesn’t improve your health and over time can damage both your mental and physical health. But healthy alternatives, such as being motivated through developed values and a noble sense of purpose are shown to generate positive energy, vitality, and well-being that can be sustained over time.



Motivational Assessment

Take Susan’s motivational assessment to identify your motivational outlook for achieving a certain task or goal you are working on.


Would you share a little about your own personal experience and relationship with money from when you were very young until now?

When I was 12 years old, my big dream was to attend Girl Scout Summer Camp. I applied and was accepted, but there was a huge obstacle: the $50 fee. My family was poor. They couldn’t afford to send me. But my parents offered that if I could raise $25, they would find a way to give me the other $25. I put the word out. I would babysit, do household chores, or whatever I could to earn 50 cents or a dollar from my neighbors and teachers at school.

One afternoon at recess, the kids at school grabbed me and encircled me. I was afraid at first—what were they going to do? Then, little Shelly with the curly hair stepped forward and handed me a little white cardboard box with a message written on top in crayon: Susie’s going to camp. Inside the box was $25.

My first reaction was pure joy. My second reaction was confusion. Why me? Why this generosity? What had I done to deserve it?

These were heavy questions for a 12-year old. My answers touched me to the core of my being. People—even those kids who can be so mean—think I’m worthy. I wonder why? Maybe because I’m kind? Because I work hard? Because I’m persistent? Because I’m grateful?

I’ve never stopped asking myself why. When something bad happens, why? When something good happens, why?

Since that day on the playground, money has been a byproduct of why I do what I do—not the reason I do what I do. I noticed a pattern: When I am authentic, genuine, and put in the effort, money comes. When I am selfish, self-centered, and want something for nothing, money is evasive. If I happen to “make” money from suboptimal intentions, I find it doesn’t give me a sense of well-being. Only money generated through satisfying my psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence sustains my positive energy, vitality, and sense of well-being (that ironically leads to generating more money!).



Become a Master at Self-Motivation

What qualities and skills does a person in a leadership position have if they are a master of self-motivation?

If leaders are going to help others shift their motivational outlook from suboptimal to optimal, they need the skill to do it for themselves. A manager whose motivational outlook to conduct performance reviews is suboptimal won’t inspire others through the review process. When it comes to leaders and motivation, the classic “physician heal thyself” story rings true.



You give many examples of leaders doing it well. Would you share one and explain why he or she is doing it well?

Ask Garry Ridge, President and CEO of the WD-40 Company, how the company is doing and off the top of his head, he showers you with employee engagement scores of 93.8%—three times the national average. Retention rates are equally high. Its market cap has grown from $200 million to $1.2 billion and has exceeded the performance of the Russell 2000 and S&P by a long shot over the last 10 years. The brand is stronger than ever.

Ask Garry how they have achieved such outstanding results, and he responds as smoothly as WD-40 Company’s industrial lubricant. He is convinced their success is built on a culture of belonging. He is quick to point out that belonging is not all “kumbaya.” Belonging, he explains, is a balance between being tough-minded and tenderhearted. This place in between is where people feel safe and are able to do their best work.

Garry’s approach to business promotes a workplace that makes it easier for people to self-regulate. People aren’t expending emotional labor on low-quality self-regulation just to satisfy their psychological needs. Either by happy accident or by intelligent design, Garry has tapped into the interconnected power of people’s psychological needs for Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence.

People exercise autonomy within clearly defined and fair expectations and boundaries. People feel relatedness through a culture of belonging. People recognize their ever-growing competence by focusing on learning moments that encourage them to try new things, ask for help, and learn from their experiences.

Garry knows, “There’s no such thing as a single motivation. People choose their own motivation. A leader’s job is to create an environment that makes it easier for people to choose optimal motivation. It takes dedication to create that safe playing field where people can move from fear to freedom, protected by values and inspired by vision. Our real job is to help all our people be the next version of their best selves. It is time well invested.”



Rethink Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation

You have a fascinating chapter on rethinking beliefs that erode workplace motivation. Would you share one of those beliefs and what unintended damage it may do?

I have asked people around the world to fill in the blank to the idiom It’s not personal, it is just ________. Without fail, no matter what their primary language is, they can do it.

Just because certain beliefs are embedded so deep in our collective psyche doesn’t mean they are legitimate. I encourage you to consider that holding these beliefs may be undermining your ability to effectively cultivate a motivating environment for those you lead.

It’s not personal, it is just business. Are you kidding? As a manager, you deliver information, feedback, or news to an individual that affects his or her work, livelihood, opportunities, status, income, mood, health, and/or well-being. How is this not personal?

On average, employees spend 75% of their waking hours connected to work—getting ready for work, getting to work, working, returning home from work, and decompressing. Oftentimes, employees spend more time interacting with coworkers than family members. Yet managers believe their actions are not personal and just business?

Trust me, what you say and do feels personal to the people you lead! Therein lies the issue. The new “F-word” in business, it seems, is Feelings. Is this because we hold a belief that expressing feelings does not belong in the workplace? If so, where did this belief come from?

Research shows that even though people judge their work environment both emotionally and cognitively, emotions are the primary determinant of their sense of well-being. As a manager, your actions strongly influence the outcome of an individual’s appraisal process that results in a sense of well-being—or not. If you do not notice, acknowledge, and deal with a person’s emotions, you may unwittingly be undermining that sense of well-being that is the vital link to a person’s intentions and behavior.

Try this for the next month: Instead of holding on to a traditional belief that potentially undermines people’s motivation, listen to your heart and acknowledge the crucial role that feelings play in work and life. Try changing that traditional belief to an Optimal Motivation belief: “If it is business, it must be personal.”


For more information, see Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging.


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