You can't motivate people…

..because they are already motivated. This goes for employees, peers, customers, and in fact for all human beings.

Think of the laziest person you know. From one perspective they are solid blocks of inertia. But from another – more useful – one, they are highly motivated: to avoid hassle and discomfort, and to seek comfort and ease. They actively pursue it. The proof? Try to get them to do something, and you will be met with energetic counter-manouvres! 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 it is actively waiting (just as the couch-potato is exquisitely alert to threats to their equilibrium): if the temperature falls below the required setting, it will turn on the heater straightaway.

(for the theory behind this, check out the work of Bill Powers, originator of Perceptual Control Theory. His classic book is Behavior: The Control of Perception, but his introductory Making Sense of Behavior is more approachable).

This view makes immediate 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. For those who are, it’s a motivator, for those who aren’t it’s not. If someone has insufficient funds according to the setting of their ‘money-stat’, the offer of more will appear to motivate them. But once they have enough, they will back right off on the accelerator and more money will just make your business poorer.

If you want to get someone to go along with something, then rather than trying to force them, pump them up, energise them, cajole them i.e. to try to disturb them into it, it is much less effort to figure out their desired conditions and arrange for them to get what they want by doing what you want. When you can do this – whether this be a matter of leading employees or appealing to customers – you engage their inbuild, intrinsic motivation. This can require some ingenuity and creativity, of course, but no one seems to be advocating for dumb and uncreative management anyway.

© 2012. Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.