Motivation Made Simple

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If you're a manager then you've been told at least once that you have to "motivate your people." But how do you do that? Start by making a change in your head. 

Forget about "motivating" people. Motivation isn't something you do to someone else. It's something we each do for ourselves.

You can't see motivation. Motivation is inside another person's head and heart. You can't touch it. You can't measure it. And, therefore you can't manage it,either.

So, manage the things you can see and measure. Start concentrating on behavior and performance. The things people say and do are behavior. The results of their efforts are performance.

Use the things you say and do to influence the behavior and performance of the people who work for you. Talk your talk. Walk your walk. Your people will pay attention to what you say and do and try to do what you want them to do.

Tell people what you expect. If your people don't know what you want them to do, they'll guess. And you may not get the behavior or performance you want. Learn to give good directions. Constantly check for understanding.

Tell people how they're doing. Give frequent and usable feedback. If you're the boss, your job is to help your people succeed and remove any excuses for failing.

Make sure that behavior and performance have consequences. Consequences are the result of behavior and performance. If you touch a hot stove, the pain you feel is a consequence of your behavior. If you make a great sports play or cook a great meal, the joy you feel is a consequence of your performance.

Good things should happen when behavior and performance are good. We call those good things positive consequences.

Positive consequences include praise, a better assignment, time off and cash. Positive consequences are things people want. They get people to continue what they're doing or try something new. Reward good behavior and performance. Catch people doing things right.

Bad things should happen when behavior and performance are bad. We call those bad things negative consequences.

Negative consequences that you might deliver include discipline, more work, and penalties. They get people to stop what they're doing. Make bad behavior and performance something that has a consequence every time. And remember that lots of small corrections are better than fewer, bigger corrections.

Keep doing it. This is work that is never done and it's the core of your work as a boss. Great bosses do the things we're talking about over and over, every day.

This may be simple, but it's not easy.

Boss's Bottom Line

You can't motivate anyone else. But it's part of your job to deliver the consequences of behavior and performance, all as part of creating a great working environment.

This post also appears at The Management Experts

Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 8/31/2010 5:06 PM davidburkus wrote:
    Great post. I get a kick out of the "experts" and "scholars" who find a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic. What they really mean is motivation or bribery.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/31/2010 6:27 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      I get a kick out of the way you make that distinction, David. Thanks so much for adding to the discussion.

      Reply to this
  • 9/1/2010 12:51 AM Eric Schwarzrock wrote:
    Excellent post. Good directions are necessary and appreciated. Directions are a result of organization in a boss, which help the team work on the same page. I especially like directions that inspire creativity and uniqueness but keep it all tied together and structured. Thanks for the needed managerial inspiration.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/1/2010 8:40 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for your comments, Eric. I really like the phrase, "keep it all tied together." That seems to be one of the things that bosses do.

      Reply to this
  • 9/1/2010 11:00 PM Larry Keeton wrote:
    Interesting post. I understand your comments, but I would like to offer an alternative view regarding motivation. After 37 years of leading military and public sector organizations, leaders/manager can motivate people. I concur with your idea of performance, but my experience has taught me people are motivated when they feel they can't let their boss/peers/subordinates down. True, the ultimate choice belongs to the individual, but this choice is affected by many factors.

    If the leadership treats them with dignity, respect, and values their opinions, people will not want to let their boss/peers down. My combat foxhole experiences have demonstrated that when bullets are flying, it's not the flag that motivates a soldier to charge up the hill, but his/her desire not to let their buddies down. I've seen this proved numerous times in the organizations that have moved from the worst to becoming a top performing organization.

    Performance standards are critical, but we all have an emotional core/need that wants us to be seen as a part of the bigger picture. Leaders can develop this in their organizations, thus motivating people to do the right thing every time.

    If motivation wasn't important, why do people go beyond the performance standards? A leader can state the minimum performance standard, and most people will do just that and get good feedback based on your post. But, how do you account for the people who go above and beyond to deliver exceptional performance. What makes them do this, especially in organizations that do not give bonuses for outstanding performance? I would argue that leaders inspire that level of service, or have created an environment to accomplish this result.

    What I've learned about motivation is simple. First, create something people want to be part of, something that they have to contribute to, something that requires them not to let their peers down. Second, set standards of success and reward them appropriately. But, also, reward experimentation, especially when it fails. Learn from mistakes, and recognize those who tried, failed, and learn the lessons they provided. Third, and in my mind most critical, as a leader, be approachable. Be willing to justify your decisions. If you can't explain why you made a decision, then you made a bad decision. I tell the people who work for me, you may not agree with my rationale, but if I can explain why I made that decision, then it's a good decision in my opinion. People respect that, and ultimately, its respect that motivates people to go above and beyond.

    Just another thought.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/2/2010 9:17 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. I'll stay with my position that you can't motivate someone else. You can conditions where they will motivate themselves. I think the difference in language is crucial because when you say "I can motivate someone else" you imply that the motivation is something you control. I don't think that's so.

      Reply to this
  • 9/2/2010 2:11 PM Jenny Tsai wrote:
    Wonderful post. I think we all need to be motivated that to keep us ALIVE in our workplace, otherwise, we are just doing our jobs. The company will produce better quality of goods and service if employees are under good influence from the leader.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/2/2010 2:53 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Jenny. I think there are some people who motivate themselves no matter what. But most of us are really affected by the boss and, to a lesser extent, by the organization. For them it's easier to motivate themselves if the environment is good.

      Reply to this
  • 9/3/2010 4:56 PM Derek Irvine Globoforce wrote:
    Great post, Wally. Reminds me of what I said a bit ago on my own blog in a post called "Why Motivation Matters."

    The job of the manager and leader is to help employees be motivated for the right reasons. You cannot motivate employees. You can provide reasons for them to motivate themselves. You can define what it is that is most helpful to the team and company and then frequently and appropriately recognize and reward behaviors and actions that meet those definitions. You can encourage, you can appreciate, you can thank, but you cannot motivate.

    Reply to this
    1. 9/3/2010 5:16 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Dang, I wrote a whole post and you got it all in a straightforward paragraph. Bravo! And thanks.

      Reply to this
  • 9/6/2010 8:26 AM Laura Schroeder wrote:
    I agree you can't manage motivation but can you encourage it? People are very self-motivating if they have a chance to do what they care about. Do managers have a role helping people work on what they care about (as long as it's also good for the copmany) or should they focus mainly on behavior and results?
    Reply to this
    1. 9/6/2010 8:47 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for asking the question that way, Laura. I don't think "encourage" is quite the right word, but I think I know where you're going. Let me try this in response.


      Bosses create the working environment for their team. The boss's job is to create a working environment where people are able and likely to pursue find purpose and pursue mastery while having as much control as possible over their work life.


      Part of that work is helping people develop by building on their strengths while making their weaknesses irrelevant. Part of it is keeping them safe. At the same time, though, you and the team need to accomplish the mission.

      Reply to this
  • 9/7/2010 4:37 PM Gina wrote:
    Everyone I know would rather be motivated by striving towards a reward- instead of trying to avoid a consequence. No one wants to live in the negative.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/7/2010 5:10 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Gina. I think that our brains are wired to avoid danger before almost anything. That gives negative consequences an incredible power. But that power comes at a price. They can get people to stop doing the specific thing you want, but they often shut down all "trying" as well. And negative consequences have long-lasting impact because we have a strong emotional memory of them.

      Reply to this
  • 9/8/2010 5:44 PM Julie wrote:
    Thanks for vocalizing the day in and day out of being a manager. Actions and consequences are very important in providing performance expectations and socially acceptable behavior. They don't change intrinsic motivation though. People are blessed with varying amounts of instrinsic motivation. As a manager it is our job to consistently provide as good of an environment as we can for them to succeed, thereby providing the extrinsic motivation to add to their natural intrinsic motivation. I think that actions/consequences fall into this extrinsic category, along with the company's mission and leadership. It is important to note that most people have to believe in what they are doing at some level in order to best channel that instrinsic motivation to create superior work product. This could explain why some programs geared to provide greater work product channeling extrinsic motivation aren't always as effective as one would like them to be. Ideally you would want someone intrinsically motivated to the task at hand, as just a little extrinsic motivation gets them to the highest work product levels.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/8/2010 6:29 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      First, Julie, thanks for the kind words. My goal is to write things that will help working bosses do a better job, so I really appreciate your comments and that you took time to share them.


      You're right about that intrinsic motivation. Many people don't get the intrinsic motivation pumping at work, mostly because, in many place, we do a poor job of setting the right conditions. When that happens people can be amazingly productive.

      Reply to this
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