You Can’t Motivate People …

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter October 2013

Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas

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You Can’t Motivate People …

sloth..because they are already motivated. This goes for employees, peers, customers, and in fact for all human beings (and other living creatures).

Think of the laziest person you know – perhaps they resemble the sloth pictured on the left. From one perspective they are solid blocks of inertia. But from another – more useful – one, they are highly motivated.

By what? By the desire to avoid hassle and discomfort, and to seek comfort and ease.

The proof? Try to get them to do something they don’t want to do, and you will be met with energetic counter-manoeuvres! Once their desired conditions are restored, of course, they will return to their inactivity (until you next disturb them).

It’s like a thermostat. If the room is the right temperature, a thermostat doesn’t do anything. But if the temperature goes above the required setting, it will turn on the air conditioning straightaway. If you want a higher temperature, it’s no use turning on a separate heater, because the thermostat will cancel it out. You need to reset the thermostat itself.

This view makes sense of so much of the endless debates about whether money is a motivator or not. To seek a general answer is to ask the wrong question. Some people are seeking money, others are not. If someone has insufficient funds according to the setting of their ‘money-thermostat’, the offer of more will appear to motivate them. But once they have enough, they will back off, and providing more money will just make your business poorer.

This is also the mechanism underpinning so much ‘resistance’ to change. If you want to get someone to go along with your initiative, then if you try to force them, pump them up, energise them or cajole them, you will essentially be trying to disturb them into it. That’s where the pushback comes from. Instead, figure out their desired conditions and arrange for them to get what they want by doing what you want.

Question to consider:

  • How well do you really understand your peoples’ ‘thermostats’, what they are measuring, and what level they are set to?
  • How about those of your customers or clients?
  • Are your efforts to influence or change behaviour simply being cancelled out by their thermostats?
  • How can you either work with, or adjust, the dial so that their natural intrinsic motivation is engaged?

We Make Laws but Follow Customs

Michel de Montaigne said: “The way of the world is to make laws, but follow customs.” That, in a nutshell, is why you can’t change your culture simply through training programs, structural changes or getting people to sign up to charters. For more on the limits of training as an instrument of change, have a look at this blog-post: Training has limited influence over behaviour.

For suggestions on what works better, check out this edition of my Performance Podcast: How To Boost Your Influence Over Culture and Change.

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© 2013 Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.