Motivate: goad, impel, drive, incite, persuade.
According to Marketdata Enterprises, Motivational Speakers in the U.S. alone, took home more than $1 billion in 2016.
Motivational quotes abound on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Employee Motivation is the subject of much research and advice: In his book The Motivation Toolkit, David Kreps writes about ‘secret weapons for motivating employees’
But behind our insatiable appetite for motivation lies a fundamental and damaging ignorance of what motivation actually is, and where it really comes from:
The entire motivational industry is founded on the notion that you can motivate me – that you can supply me with the energy (the motive power) that I need to move myself into productive action. This in turn is based on the assumption that you know what motivates me.
In a leadership context, this understanding of motivation creates problems:
- You have finite resources of time and energy, so if you have to motivate me and everyone else, your organisation becomes unscalable and will never grow beyond certain limits
- You may think you know what motivates me, but you may be wrong, particularly if even I don’t have a clear understanding of what my motivations are
- What motivates me may be very different from what motivates others, so a one size fits all approach cannot work
But perhaps far more importantly:
The more I rely on you to motivate me, the less I’ll be able to motivate myself.
Once again the machine metaphor has polluted our thinking. David Kreps betrays this in his use of words such as weapons and toolkit. Whilst we continue building our organisations to emulate machines, the human being will never be a comfortable fit. Our bodies and minds may resemble machines – our essence does not.
By relying on external motivations we deny that essence and shut it down, becoming ever more dependent on finite, external sources. Ultimately the organisation mutates into an autocracy populated by drones and zombies being constantly motivated by the leadership.
What leadership and organisations need to grasp is that:
- Only I can motivate myself
- I have neither the responsibility nor the right to motivate anyone else
- If I truly motivate myself, I may well inspire others
In practice this requires leaders to be far more concerned with their own speech, activity and behaviour than anyone else’s. As any observant parent will know, it is the parental behaviour that shapes a child’s development, not a parent’s words of instruction, correction or motivation.
This is inspiration, not motivation. But inspiration is an outcome of one’s own inner alignment and integrity, and to attempt to inspire someone else is to undermine that integrity.
If only leadership teams would understand that it is their behaviour, demeanour and attitude that influences and inspires. It is the way they lead their lives that is instrumental in creating the culture around them, not what they say.
An executive coach demonstrated this very neatly to her sceptical CEO client when he complained of having no influence. She wound up the meeting with a parting instruction to buy a copy of Forbes magazine and carry it with him wherever he went. When they met again he protested that nothing had changed, people were still ignoring him and making him feel redundant. She then took him for a walk around the office and showed him how many people had started to read Forbes.
So whenever we feel an urge to motivate someone else, the best response is to ask ourselves how we might be better motivating ourselves. Then we can let inspiration do its work without any intervention… or motivation.