Stop trying to motivate people; activate their leadership

Trying to motivate people is like pushing a boulder uphill. The problem is that often the motivators reflect what motivates the leader, rather than the people they are trying to motivate. The result is a struggle to reach the top of the hill as people aren’t motivated by what resonates with them.

Stop trying to motivate people directly. Instead, activate their leadership and let their motivations come from within.

An extrinsic Corporate history

For decades, corporate leaders have been trying to get people to do good work by motivating them with inspirational words, financial incentives, and performance reviews. These things are all extrinsic motivators, which are ineffective at motivating people in the way you want. Despite this fact being well known and discussed, many companies continue to use them as the primary means for motivating their people.

The problem with any extrinsic motivator is that they often focus people in an unintended way. Financial incentives focus people on meeting the criteria for winning the bonus. People rarely internalize inspirational words, so they will try to please their boss instead. Performance reviews often result in people doing what’s needed to get a good review based on measures established months ago rather than the current reality.

Activate their leadership

Avoid extrinsic motivators, and start activating the leadership in everyone around you. Activating their leadership will mean their actions will be grounded in conditions that are more likely to produce the outcomes you want. Doing so will increase your organizations capacity and ability to respond to whatever happens in your world.

Often leaders respond to problems by addressing skills, knowledge, and tools. While all are important, too often, leaders fail to examine the conditions leading to how the people respond to problems. After all, it’s people’s response to problems that will improve things, so imagine if all of them were responding as leaders.

Activating their leadership starts with observations, which means seeing people’s responses without judging them as good or bad. When you can observe what’s happening without judgement, you can start to understand their motivations.

Motivation is, by definition, a person’s reason to act. Once you think you understand their motivations, it can be tempting to discount or change them. Doing this is a sign that you likely don’t know their motives. Instead, there’s a good chance you’re responding based on what motivates you.

Motivations are an internal process formed based on our individual preferences and experiences, brought together to create a person’s reason to act in a given moment.

Rather than changing a person’s motivations, look to understand and work with the conditions that trigger their motivations. Each of us has a unique story, and the first place to look is to the parts of their story that have us feeling safe or unsafe. In other words, what are the fears influencing their current motivations? A person’s fears, such as a loss of income, bad performance review, or the impact on their family life, will influence their motivations. When you can understand and talk to people about their motivations, you have the opportunity to change the conditions that have them motivated.

Finally, to understand their feeling of safety, look to what makes them the person they are. Their core values, personality type, and strengths will all inform their fears. These fears, of course, then influence their motivations.

By exploring why people are taking the actions you see, you will start to understand the conditions that will genuinely change the outcomes. Once this happens, the skills, knowledge, and tools play a lesser role in the outcomes.

Don’t wait until you have a problem to do the work of activating their leadership. Spend time weekly with your team and talk about what’s important to them, their fears, and how these impact their motivations. By investing time in your team, you will activate the leader in everyone so that their response will be effective when problems do emerge.

Activate your leadership first

If you were deathly afraid of heights, what’s the likelihood of you convincing someone else to climb a ladder? Your fear will leak out and unintentionally influence the other person to not climb the ladder.

Leadership is much the same. Your core beliefs, fears, and motivations will unintentionally influence the people you lead. While in some cases this might be a good thing (e.g. holding a core value around doing the right thing), in other cases, it might cause problems (e.g. fear of not receiving a bonus)

All of this is why activating the leadership in others starts with you. If you’re not self-aware, then you lose the opportunity to catch yourself influencing others in unintended ways.

The world needs activated leaders more than ever. Please hurry.

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