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You Can’t Motivate People…So Stop Trying

By February 22, 2017 No Comments

“Motivation” isn’t achieved via tired clichés written on posters or through fiery speeches to an amped up crowd at a political rally. Instead, real motivation comes from a place within each individual person that leads you or me to perform behaviors which will either produce some kind of positive effect or remove a negative effect from our lives. (See Human Motivation Series Part I)

Anne Bruce, a successful professional speaker, executive mentor, and the author of many books, has a quote in the very front of one of her books: How to Motivate Every Employee: 24 Proven Tactics to Spark Productivity in the Workplace. The quote says “In thinking about motivation from a management perspective, it’s very important to appreciate this point: You can’t motivate people, you can only influence what they’re motivated to do.” (emphasis added)

In other words, it is not a manager’s job, the responsibility of the employer, or even the purpose of the company mission statement to motivate an individual to take action in the right direction. Sure, those things may help, but the reality is, each person still makes an individual choice to do those things which are good for the profitability of the company. In fact, quite often, the ways a manager believes are best to motivate his/her team could actually be major demotivating influences for many of their employees.

Published rules make sure everyone agrees on what are acceptable behaviors.

What I believe Anne Bruce is really trying to tell us is that the best way to truly motivate individuals is to create an environment in which others can thrive. Because my brain thinks in terms of analogies to which I can make mental connections, and because I am a big sports fan, prepare yourself for a sports-to-business analogy. Allow me to paint a mental picture for you of what I envisioned when I read Anne’s statement: every sport/game has rules so that those who are playing understand and agree before the contest begins what is and is not allowed, know how to score points, and know how a winner will be decided within the parameters of the contest. By establishing those standards beforehand, individual participants are then free to explore the limits of those requirements so long as they stay within the rules.

In football, there are rules against holding another player and preventing him from having a clear path to another player. In soccer, you are not allowed to use your hands. In volleyball, your team can only touch it three times on your side before putting it back over the net. In golf…well, the rules for golf are seemingly endless (the official USGA rulebook is 121 pages long!) so, just make sure you hit the ball from wherever it last came to rest and you’ll be fine. The point is that each sport/game has clear guidelines and then sports fans like me become giddy when an athlete playing the game within the rules, does something extraordinary.

Serena Williams at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, NY. (Photo courtesy of

Serena Williams acing a serve at the U.S. Open is breathtaking. Klay Thompson hitting nothing but nylon on a step-back 3-pointer is sublime. Clayton Kershaw freezing a batter on a wicked slider for a called strike three…nasty. Aaron Rodgers spinning and scrambling to his left, then throwing a 40-yard dart to the sideline where Jared Cook makes one of the best catches you will ever see to get the Packers into range for the game winning field goal…on the road…in the playoffs…unbelievable!! (Also totally heartbreaking if you are a Dallas Cowboys fan.) In business, we can apply these same principles, and as managers, employers, and business owners, we can be (and should be) just as excited to watch our employees amaze us as they achieve equally impressive feats in life.

One of the hallmarks of Snowfly’s proven system is helping our clients learn to effectively influence the behaviors their employees are motivated to perform. The point is, create the environment you want your employees to operate within, set some written, attainable and measurable goals for their performance, articulate the rewards/benefits for achieving the goals…and then stop trying to motivate them. If you have created the correct environment for success, you will have influenced the things that your employees are motivated to do. At that point, you have played your role and your job is to be their biggest fan and cheer the amazing accomplishments, the extraordinary creativity, and eventually, the huge wins that will follow. Every professional baseball player is motivated by the same goal, they don’t need to be told what should motivate them. The 2016 Chicago Cubs didn’t begin Spring Training last year with everyone in the organization sitting down for a pep-talk to properly motivate them to want to win the World Series…they already had 108 years’ worth (1908-2016) of motivational reasons behind them. Likewise, your employees know what motivates them as individuals too, so give them some rules to play by and then get out of their way!

Amen Corner at The Masters in Augusta, GA. (Photo courtesy of

In our years of helping other companies learn how to maximize their incentive program budgets and ultimately motivate their employees to levels of performance not seen before, we here at Snowfly have learned a few things. If you want to score a six points all at once in football, the requirement is clear…carry the ball across the goal line to score a touchdown. Similarly, if you want to see your employees excel, set clearly defined measurements of success and then reward them for reaching those targets. Outline exactly what will result from performing a specific behavior, i.e. show up for your scheduled shifts on-time, every day for a week and you will earn a $5 bonus. Or, complete this training regimen and pass this examination to receive an extra $1/hour pay raise. Set 15 new customer appointments this week and…you get the idea. In sports terms, your job is to design the golf hole, cut the grass, identify the target by putting the flag in the cup and then watch how every single person who plays that course attacks that hole in thousands of different ways; some in ways you never envisioned.


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