“You can’t motivate people”

Companies spend a lot of time and money trying to engage and motivate their employees—in all the wrong ways.

Top consultant, trainer, and coach Susan Fowler in her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does, tells us to stop trying to motivate people, because it’s frustrating for everyone involved and it just doesn’t work. Fowler explains:

As a leader you can’t motivate anyone– they are already motivated, but generally in superficial and short-term ways. What you can do is cultivate a workplace where people are more likely to experience optimal motivation.

“Your people aren’t pigeons or whales”

Fowler debunks the animal-behavior theory that the workplace has been built on, and makes the strong case, based on 20 years of research, that a rewards and incentives mindset of motivating primarily with raises, bonuses, or promotions needs to shift to values and purpose. She argues that leaders still depend on traditional carrot and stick techniques because they haven’t understood their alternatives and don’t know what skills are necessary to apply the new science of motivation.

Her Optimal Motivation process shows leaders how to move people away from dependence on external rewards and help them discover how their jobs can meet their deeper psychological needs—for autonomy, relatedness, and competence—that science tells us result in meaningful and sustainable motivation.

How to get motivation mojo back

So what can leaders and managers do differently?

Fowler offers a course of action that helps leaders guide their people towards the kinds of motivation that not only increases productivity and engagement but also gives them a profound sense of purpose and fulfillment.

The question is not if a person is motivated, but why. It’s the quality of a person’s motivation that matters—whether the reasons they are motivated promote creativity, innovation, sustainable focus, and higher productivity (optimal), or thwart them (suboptimal).

Here are three concrete things she suggests leaders can stop doing immediately to achieve a positive difference in motivation:

1. Stop depending on your authority and find ways to give your people a greater sense of autonomy. This includes giving them a sense of choice by helping them figure out new actions, discussing various possible approaches to problems, and giving them freedom within boundaries as much as possible.

2. Stop thinking business isn’t personal. Turn it around: If it is business, then it must be personal. Discover the personal issues that may be affecting a person’s performance and be willing to explore feelings (yours and theirs).

3. Stop focusing on what was achieved at the end of the day and ask instead, “What did people learn today?” How did they grow?”

Motivation is a skill. It can be taught, learned, nurtured, and sustained.
People can choose a higher-quality motivation experience anytime and anywhere. So a leader’s job is about facilitating people’s shift from a suboptimal to an optimal motivational outlook.

To understand the full story behind motivation in the workplace being as simple and as complex as whether or not our psychological needs are satisfied, we highly recommend you read this book.