Quit Trying to Motivate People and Focus on These 3 Things Instead

Got MotivationWhat if I said you were wasting your time trying to motivate your employees? Would you think I’ve committed leadership heresy? Would you say I’ve gone off the deep end and lost touch with the reality? Maybe I am a heretic. Maybe I have gone a little bit cuckoo.

But I’ll say it anyway. You’re wasting your time trying to motivate people.

The reality is people are always motivated. The question is not if they are motivated, but why. That’s the question my colleague Susan Fowler is imploring leaders to ask as they consider how to best lead their team members in achieving their goals and those of the organization. Susan’s recent book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, along with the training program Optimal Motivation, explores how leaders can help their people tap into the psychological needs that drive their motivations. Once you and your people understand why you do what you do, you can master the ability to choose a more positive and productive motivational outlook.

For too long leaders have relied on “carrot and stick” strategies to try to motivate employees. Because B.F. Skinner was able to get pigeons to turn around in circles by offering them food pellets, we assumed we could get people to perform specific behaviors by offering them their own version of food pellets: bonus checks, reward trips, certificates to hang on the wall, etc. That may work for the short-term and for rudimentary, repetitive kinds of tasks, but it won’t unlock the long-term passion and commitment of your people that leads to sustained engagement in today’s knowledge economy.

Rather than focusing on carrot and stick strategies that only address external motivation and short-term results, focus on these three psychological needs that help people tap into their deeper, sustainable levels of internal motivation:

Autonomy – It’s human nature to desire independence and to feel in control of our lives. That desire doesn’t stop at the office door. Help your people be clear on the goals they have to achieve and the boundaries they’re operating within and then give them the authority and responsibility to get the job done the way they see fit. As much as possible, engage them in designing the work systems, creating the metrics used to manage their work, and evaluating the quality of everything they produce. When people are in control of achieving the goal they take more ownership and use their discretionary energy to help the organization succeed. Helping employees develop autonomy is not “letting the inmates run the asylum.” It’s giving them the space and freedom within defined boundaries to manage their work with an ownership mentality.

Relatedness – We are hardwired to have interpersonal connections with other people to one degree or another. Your people are much more than worker drones showing up to do a job for eight hours. They are complex, rich, dynamic people with amazing life stories and the relationships they have at work are primary threads in the tapestry of their lives. Leaders can foster a sense of relatedness by encouraging people to connect on the job through mentorships, buddy systems, and activities that foster team morale. As the boss, make the effort to share more information about yourself and the organization to increase transparency and authenticity with your team. The Johari Window is a helpful model that illustrates how you can improve communication and build trust with others by disclosing information about yourself.

Competence – People have an innate desire to continually develop competence in their skills, talents, and abilities. Continuous growth and learning is critical to help people address the challenges and obstacles that come their way. Neglecting to develop the talents of your people is leadership malpractice. People who are ill-quipped to handle workplace challenges quickly become overwhelmed and give up, while those who are committed to ongoing development are able to flexibly adapt to changing business conditions.

Motivation isn’t something that a person either has or doesn’t have. Everyone is motivated in one way or another. They key question is “What is the quality of their motivation?” I have a belief that you can’t motivate anyone. It’s up to each person to choose their level of motivation. But what I can do is help create an environment that encourages and allows people to be optimally motivated.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to develop Optimal Motivation for yourself and others, join the free Leadership Livecast Motivating People Doesn’t Work…What Does? on February 25 or 26.

15 Comments on “Quit Trying to Motivate People and Focus on These 3 Things Instead

  1. Hi Randy

    I believe if people are doing something they like they are automatically motivated and prepared to go the extra mile.
    If not the only thing a leader can do is to find out if there is another place within the company.
    There is only one point I disagree: “Carrots and Stick” might be a management-tool but leaders never use it.
    Have a nice Sunday and a good start into the new week.

    • Hi Brigitte,

      We are motivated to do the things we love because those activities connect deeply with our values and purpose.

      Have a good week!


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  3. Although I agree with your 3 things, I disagree that motivation is ineffective. Trading time for money is still an effective means of motivation. If you will check the prisons, there is a long list of motivated persons that did things that they did not want to do for money.

    • I hear your point Buckie. Carrot and Stick rewards can be effective if they are used in the right context for specific results, but as a general means of sustaining long-term motivation and commitment, they usually fail.

      Best regards,


  4. Reblogged this on summershaffer and commented:
    Motivation is something I hear about on a daily basis in my role as a leader. Motivation needs to be as unique as the team member you are applying it to. Generationally speaking remember that just because an individual chronologically falls into a generation category doesn’t mean that motivators will be consistent with that generation. That being said, Boomers want to to be respected, revered, heard and appreciated for their vital contributions. Gen Xers don’t respond well to the one-size-fits-all approach that their younger predessesors appreciate; Gen Xers want to be individually recognized and tend to respond well to motivators like extra time off, financials rewards or other incentives that influence work-life balance. Millennials have been recognized from day one so they need immediate and constant feedback. Millennials also want to feel heard and appreciated in spite of their age or level within an organization.

    • Great points Summer. Generational differences need to be taken account when consider their personal motivations.

      Thanks for adding your excellent insights.


  5. Your assessment that one cannot motivate another is absolutely correct. I tried many times and failed. The best performers I developed were the ones who had the desire to achieve. To those people I gave authority to make things happen. I never learned about their failures until they corrected them them selves. My personal contact came in the form of one on one project reviews during which I would provide them with direction and insight to a solution. They left, and did what they thought was right in their mind. Sometimes they took my advice and sometimes not. All that mattered was that they achieved the goal.

    • Thank you Joe! I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and experience with us. Enjoyed your website!

      Best regards,


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