by Paul Matthews

Everyone is always motivated


Isn’t it part of a manager’s job to motivate people who are not motivated?

How can you say that everyone is motivated all the time?

Without a desire to do something, we would do nothing, except those autonomic functions such as breathing, digestion and beating our hearts. That desire might be to sleep, to read the paper, to sit in the sun or to chat about the football with a work colleague – and this is still motivated behaviour.

When a manager says that John is not motivated, what this really means is that John does not ‘want’ to do the things that the manager wants him to do. He is simply motivated to do something different, like shopping on the internet as opposed to doing the filing.

We observe the person doing something other than what we want them to do or think they should be doing given the circumstances. They are acting other than we would act, given the circumstances, so we assume there is something wrong with them – that they are lacking something.

This is simply not the case. Everyone is always motivated to do something, and this motivation will vary from weak to strong.

People can be motivated to do several things at the same time: for example, sit and read the paper, watch the football on TV, mow the lawn or go and do their tax return. Whichever task has the strongest motivation will ‘win’.

Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.

Dwight D Eisenhower

This way of looking at the subject has far-reaching implications when you think about motivating your staff or, indeed, yourself. You will approach people with the knowledge that motivation itself is not the problem, since everyone is motivated all the time. The real problem, from your perspective as a manager, is your need to influence what people want to do and therefore to discover how to achieve that in a work context.

Changing the ‘want’

If you would like to influence or motivate people to do something different, you need to do something that will raise within them a stronger motivation to do the new thing than the old thing. The stronger their motivation to do their current behaviour, the less likely you are to be able to turn them from that behaviour onto something else.

Whenever you seek to influence someone, you are seeking to override their current motivation with another which is stronger and which dovetails with your own aims and outcomes.

Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly.

Stephen R Covey

The only truly effective and long-term way to do this is to appeal to something already within them, so that what you want them to do becomes an intrinsic part of what they themselves want to do.

Intrinsic motivation

The best kind of motivation is when you are in the flow. Stuff just seems to happen almost naturally, even difficult things. You do not have to force an outcome, it just comes to pass and you are almost along for the ride.

What is different for you about this really natural kind of motivation?

Some people say they don’t learn easily or can’t study, yet they read the sports pages and have an encyclopaedic knowledge about their team and the sport they follow. What is the difference between their sporting passion and studious learning? One is in flow; the other is not.

If you were to ask if they were highly motivated to study sports, they would probably say no. This level of motivation is so intrinsic and so aligned within them that they are unaware of it, or its power. Actions that arise from this kind of motivation are effortless. Real motivation does not require effort. If effort is needed, you are probably fighting an internal conflict of values or some other misalignment of purpose.

If you threaten with a big stick or entice with a large carrot, this will work provided the stick or carrot is big enough. If that is all you do, however, you will be setting up conflicts and resistance within the recipient. This is why stick and/or carrot, on their own, will ultimately fail. The best you can hope for is compliance, and often grudging compliance at that. More complex interventions are needed to tap into the effortless intrinsic motivation.

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.

James M Barrie