How To Build Motivation (And Not Destroy It)


In my coaching work with executives, I often run into the same question: “How do I keep people from quitting?” After all, we’re in the midst of the great resignation. From Fortune 500 companies offering sabbaticals to local school districts offering retention bonuses, everyone is looking for incentives to keep employees around. Most of the focus has been on bonuses, salaries, and other external carrots.

In the business world, our go-to answer is often to incentivize with financial rewards. Or, in certain circles, to use the fear of being let go to keep that fire burning. Yet, both of these commonly used practices backfire over the long haul. They rely on the external. They are like using lighter fluid, creating a big flame, or in our case a bump in motivation, but one that quickly fades. We’re much better off with a longer-lasting, slow-burning coal approach to keep our fires going. That’s motivation from the inside. How to create that is a central component of my new book, Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness. Here are some of the key things I learned.

Gallup study of over 1.4 million employees found no relationship between employee engagement and level of pay. The more engaged an employee is, the more productive she typically is. Pay had no impact. Meanwhile, a recent analysis found that people who are motivated by their inner drive are three times more engaged than those motivated by the external. It’s not to say that pay isn’t important. It’s essential at fulfilling people’s basic needs to live and feel valued. But it’s the internal drive that lights our motivational fire over the long haul. That’s why I just wrote feel valued.

When researchers looked at the ability to persist in various domains—from cycling to math to business development and fundraising—one factor kept popping up. Those who persisted had different goals and motivation. They weren’t driven by fear, or guilt, or pressure. They didn’t keep working in pursuit of money. What they all were doing was pursuing a goal because it aligned with who they were and it brought them enjoyment and contentment. They were choosing to do the work, not being forced to; and they were having more success. Yet, the modern workplace is often set up to extinguish this flame.

Here are three things that many managers and leaders do that gets in the way of internal drive. Knowing and being on the lookout for these pitfalls can help you to avoid them:

1. Promote the grind

Hard work absolutely matters. But when we take it to the extreme, when we start promoting long hours and incessant work without time to recover, we not only are more likely to suffer burnout, we are also slowly shifting our workers’ motivation. As the hours stack up, their motivation slowly shifts from want to, to have to. They feel obligated, and exhausted, instead of choosing to do the work.

A recent study out of the London School of Economics and Cornell University found that working outside of normal office hours (such as on weekends or holidays) led to a decrease in intrinsic motivation. Workers kept thinking about what they could be doing instead, or how they could use their time better, which led to frustration and regret. They started enjoying the work less, and their motivation started to wane.

Creating boundaries and structure helps alleviate this problem. Setting the appropriate expectations on when work should and should not be done decreases our tendency to ruminate and wonder about what else we could be doing. If you absolutely need to grind to get a project done, then make it for a short, defined period. Think of the athlete who blocks out distractions going into the Super Bowl, knowing that once that week and game is over, their life will open up in a big way.

2. Micromanaging and Control

Micromanaging often feels good to do. You are taking control, making sure the job is done right by looking over the shoulder of whatever employee your helping. Yet, what you’ve done is send a clear message to that employee: “I don’t trust you and you are not in control.” You’ve taken away their autonomy.

We have a deep need to be in control over our environment, and in particular, our lives. It’s considered a basic psychological need. When we give away autonomy, we lose a sense of our self. And if we repeatedly do so, we lose our ability to respond even to the simplest of challenges. It’s as if we shrug our shoulder and say “what’s the point, I can’t do anything.” We become apathetic.

Giving back some of that control improves performance. In sports, a high level of autonomy leads to more persistence through pain and fatigue. Giving nursing home residents more autonomy and choice over their care and their surroundings improves mood, alertness, and well-being. While in the workplace, those who report feeling more autonomy and less micromanaging have higher levels of job satisfaction and performance.

As those in the Special Forces often say, “Trust but verify.” It’s a balance between trusting and over-managing, but we often fall too far on the side of over-managing. After all, our reputation and ego are on the line if we are leading. Instead, let go of the reins a touch, teach your people the skills, and then let them go.  Check-in occasionally to make sure they are headed in the right direction, and in situations where errors would be devastating, then pick your spots to lean in. Over time, the reins should get longer and longer. Your goal is to put people in a position to do their job and then get out of their way.

3. Leading by fear and punishment

When organizational psychologist Erica Carleton teamed up with sports psychologist Mark Beauchamp, they were trying to understand the impact of a leader’s style on the people they led. They chose NBA coaches for their model. After looking at six years of data, including over 700 players, they were able to see clear effects based on whether a player had a coach who had a supportive style or what they called an abusive one.  What they found is that when a player experienced an abusive leadership style, the player’s entire career trajectory was shifted a notch downwards. Not only did their performance drop, but the coach’s style rubbed off on the players. Players who experienced an abusive leadership style had more technical fouls over the remainder of their career. The effect lingered even after they’d switched teams.

Using fear and punishment or pushing people toward defaulting to survival mode doesn’t create intrinsic motivation; it creates the opposite! Yelling, screaming, getting in someone’s face to push them forward? Same result: motivation via fear or pressure, which may seem to work in the short term but ultimately fails when it matters. Using control and power to force obedience? It falls by the wayside when it counts.

Leading via fear, control, and punishment can work in the short term. If the potential success is large enough, people may even put up with it for a bit longer. But over the long haul, it largely fails. In research spanning decades, when some reward or punishment is introduced, people’s motivational habits shift from internal to external.

This post is an adaptation of my new book, Do Hard Things.



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