February 18, 2020

The Best (and Worst) Motivational Strategies

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Leadership is a lot like parenting.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a bit about trying to convince a toddler to go to sleep (skip ahead to 5:20), which he calls a “hostage negotiation” in reverse.

Many leaders can relate to this. We wear ourselves out trying different “motivational” techniques, all designed to get team members to do the things that we want. Things that we think will be good for them and good for the whole organization. (Also much like the hope of getting the toddler to sleep—it’s good for them and good for Mom and Dad!)

For the most part, I believe all of these motivational techniques fall into one of three categories.

  1. Coercion – This is the practice of forcing another party to act in an involuntary manner by use of intimidation, bullying, threat, or some other form of pressure or force. Sadly, entire industries have been built around coercion. But coercion usually runs out of gas. We—toddlers, team members, etc.—get tired of the threats and abuse. There is a dark and ugly underbelly tied to coercion. Beware!
  2. Incentive – The good news about incentives is they work. Most sales jobs are anchored on incentives. And every executive I know has an incentive kicker tied to stretch performance targets. But they can be costly and complicated. Incentives are built around an “if/then” formula. If you do this … then you will receive that. “If you go to bed, you can have waffles for breakfast … a new toy … ten new toys … all of my money…” (depending on how desperate the sleepy parent is).
  3. Inspiration – Inspiration is honest and pure.  It is not complicated and it’s a universal offer to any and all as a multi-purpose leadership tool. It has the power to fuel people when the incentive money is dried up and is based on finding the best in others and the best for others. Inspiration has been moving people for centuries. As the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery is reputed to have said, “If you wish to build a ship, do not divide men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.”

Coercion. Incentive. Inspiration.

What is your primary method? When you really need results, what is your default?

For many leaders, especially when the stakes are high, they approach leadership just like the exasperated parent does—they lean toward coercion and incentive. Why? Because it’s simple. It comes naturally, requires almost no thought, and in terms of immediate results, is usually quite effective.

Inspiration, however, tends to be the forgotten one of the group. It’s used as a last resort, and frankly feels a little uncomfortable. Perhaps this is because it’s more complex and harder to communicate. Or, maybe it’s because so many of those who end up in leadership positions got there under the guidance of leaders who operated almost exclusively with a carrot-stick mentality.

Whatever the reason, inspiration is neglected. Too often we’re simply demanding obedience and rewarding results, but we aren’t painting the bigger picture. We aren’t helping our employees, our volunteers, and our co-workers understand why what they do matters … to us … to the organization … to God.

Sure, it’s hard to articulate and even harder to deliver, but it’s worth the effort. Inspiration is not only the cheapest and most readily available tool, but unlike the others, it has the ability to produce results consistently over time. Coercion may work for a while and incentive may prove effective from time to time, but both eventually grow stale and lose their effectiveness. If you always yell, people simply stop listening.  

Inspiration is different because it encourages participation not based on fear or reward, but because of buy-in. When people are bought-in, they aren’t just working because they have to or were told to, but because they genuinely care about playing their role in a way that facilitates the good of the organization. I believe over time people only implement what they understand and what they buy into. They’ve become emotional and intellectual stakeholders, and that’s something worth far more than begrudging obedience. 

What’s your go-to tool for moving people to action?

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