Motivating the Unmotivated

I read a post recently from teknophyl entitled "Motivating the Unmotivated". He asked me to read it and give him some feedback. I started a reply in the comments and realized this one was going to take some time.

I encourage you to read his blog entry. I am willing to bet it will resonate with most of you, either as a participant in a similar series of events, or at least as a witness.

The blog entry ends with a question - "what do you do to motivate the person who is seemingly unwilling to be motivated?"

People are complicated

I haven't found anything that works every time. People are complex and difficult to understand. That includes you. And that includes me.

I have a history of failed well intended attempts to motivate people toward goals. But I also have a history of successful attempts to facilitate people's forward progress toward goals.

Dont' Motivate, Facilitate

Motivational techniques employed in the typical worker/manager relationship are often nothing more than coercion hiding behind a more palatable name. The distinction between motivation and coercion is small, but significant. Motivation is providing someone with a compelling enough reason to take action. Coercion is compelling one to action through force, authority, or exploitation. In either case, we are attempting to incite someone to clear a hurdle in order to achieve a desired goal. When we facilitate, we remove the hurdle and clear the path to the goal.
Seek first to understand
What we perceive as lack of motivation is often fear or lack of confidence. A lack of confidence may be in themselves, leadership, or procedures.

Find out what their perspective is. How do they see the situation? How do they see you? What do they fear? What are their concerns? What are their beliefs? Your goal here is not to help them see the flaws in their world view. Your goal here is to understand and accept that their perception, no matter how incongruent with your own, is their reality. It is their truth.

This is not a comfortable task, but it is not all that difficult. You may need the help of a third party, especially if there is interpersonal tension. In order to truly express their concerns, thoughts, and fears, they need to know there are no repercussions for being honest and open. Allow them to express themselves without countering, defending, or attempting to persuade. Listen intently and with an open mind.
Acknowledge their views
Tell them what you heard without judgement or bias. Avoid rephrasing their concerns from your perspective. I've seen people do this exercise and then say things like, "So I heard you say that you don't care to be professional and you don't think you should have to adhere to dress code like the rest of us." when what the person said was, "I am more comfortable in tennis shoes and don't see how footwear matters in the bigger picture." You also need not articulate a punch list of their prior statements. The objective is not to "prove" you listen. The objective is to listen.

Provide them the opportunity to clarify and elaborate. You want to understand their perspective. You want them to know you understand. Rather than tell them, "I understand", allow them to tell you, "Yes, you understand".
Assure them of change
Interpersonal Issues
If you wish to alter the behavior of another, start by altering your own behavior. Let's say that your fellow employee feels you are too critical of their work, they feel you see them as inferior as a result, and they resent that feeling. But you don't feel you are too critical. Rather than attempt to alter their perspective, assure them you will try to be less critical and then genuinely try to do so.

I'll give you a tip here - when making an effort to adjust your behavior, refrain from prefacing your new behavior with statements that point it out. For example, "I know you want me to try to be less critical, so ..." Simply adopt the new behavior.
Organizational Issues
Perhaps they feel they are not empowered to do what is being asked of them. Process requirements or dependence on others outside of the department impede their ability to do their work effectively. Assure them you will work to change those things you feel you can. Statements like, "I'll get Anita to whip her crew into shape or she'll have to deal with my wrath." are obviously grandstanding and represent you as someone who coerces. This devalues the very process you've just gone through. Let them know, "I'll ask Anita if we can get our groups together to discuss each other's needs and come up with something that works for all of us."
Don't make promises you can't keep
Some of what people want cannot or should not be achieved. I do encourage you to question every policy that impedes a team's ability to work more effectively. But sometimes there are valid reasons, be they for safety or legal compliance. If the policy is not based on safety or legal compliance, it is quite likely a placebo for communication.

If what the team or individual desires is not possible, be clear about it. Don't make empty promises. Be forthright and honest.
Ask them to change
Most of us are aware that relationships are multi-dimensional. Knowing we are heard, understood, and supported makes it much easier for us to consent to a little change ourselves. Asking quid pro quo is by no means out of the question. You've agreed to be less critical; ask them to honor core team hours.
Keep it balanced
Whatever they ask of you, you should expect of them. Whatever you ask of them, they should expect of you. Of course there are exceptions; roles, gender, responsibilities all come into play. Often, expectations are identical; honor core hours, don't be late to stand-up. Be cognizant of the amount of commitment each party is making and make a sincere effort to keep it in balance.
Keep your promises
This is critical.

Follow through. Remove the hurdles.

People are skeptical when told "things are going to change around here." Make sure change happens. And make sure it happens quickly. One small change can bring hope and inspiration.

A lack of action breeds contempt and cynicism. Not only have we failed to make things better, but we've made them worse.

Involve people in the removal of the hurdles. Empower people to clear their own blocks. Encourage them to set up the meetings and be there to support them.


  1. This is great advice. I'm in a situation where the unmotivated individual resists collaboration with his peers due to a lack of trust in upper management. How would you handle a situation where distrust and fear are largely a product of behavior that is outside the control of any member of the team?

    That's not to say that we can't patch up and improve trust at our level of the organization, only that the root of the problem might be outside of our direct control.

  2. Thanks for this valuable advice. I have tried applying similar behavior in the past, and while it requires discipline in keeping you promises and changing you own behaviour, it can get great results.
    I always try to remember there aspects
    - lack of confidence is often at root of problems
    - changing others must go with changing oneself
    - some people will not want to change and reasons maybe too deep to uncover, don't fall back to coercion, look for alternative engagements

  3. I like much of what you say in your article. However, I believe there may be some gaps in your logic and I have some difficulties understanding how I'd action some of your advice. I'm basing much of this of my understanding of Argyris & Schon's "Theory of Action".

    I wanted to illustrate my views by looking at this one section of your post:

    "Let's say that your fellow employee feels you are too critical of their work, they feel you see them as inferior as a result, and they resent that feeling. But you don't feel you are too critical. Rather than attempt to alter their perspective, assure them you will try to be less critical and then genuinely try to do so"

    The advice presented here has several problems. How can I genuinely try to be less critical if I don't understand what I do or say that makes me appear critical? You say not to attempt to alter their perspective - but why not? If I don't understand or believe their perspective isn't it lying and dishonest to assure them I will try to be different? How could I or they see this kind of behaviour as genuine? Why should I allow them to distance themselves from their responsibility for their thoughts and feelings?

    I'm unclear why I would even want to act like this - I infer from the previous sentence in your post that you're saying your goal is to alter their behaviour. Would you state this explicitly?

    "As I'd like you to alter your behaviour, I believe that I should start first, so I'll accept your view that I'm too critical and assure you that I will change, even though I don't agree or understand how I am too critical".

    If you wouldn't state it explicitly, why not? Would you hide your view and cover-up the fact you're hiding it?

    I'd advocate (attempting to be consistent with Argyris and Schon) trying to act in ways that would allow both of you to learn, by developing valid data and making decisions about how you might both like to act in future in ways that you could both internally commit to. Do this by illustrating your view of the situation (advocacy) and inviting them to tell you if they see it differently (inquiry).

    In your example, this might look like asking the other person to help you understand what you've said or done that leads them to feel criticised and inferior. If you're unaware of what you are doing or saying that leads them to think that, say so. Ask them if they would be willing to help you by designing some way of letting you know the next time you act in that way. If they are able to explain what you say or do that leads them to think of you as critical, then as well as looking at your own involvement, why not invite them to reflect on their involvement in the situation by asking "What has prevented you from raising this issue in the past?"

    I'd like to know what you think of this advice. Does what I've said make sense to you? Is it useful? Do you see it similarly or differently?

  4. Benjamin:

    I think I understand your concern. It seems to me that this particular phrase is taken largely out of context.

    I agree that it is important for you to understand this person's perspective. In doing so, I anticipate you would know what behaviors you exhibit that lead them to them perceive you as critical. They would have confirmed you understand their perspective. If you were to commit to change when you had no idea what that change entailed, it would most certainly be false. I set the stage for this understanding in the prior paragraphs where I encourage you to seek first to understand and to acknowledge their views.

    Later, I cover asking them to change and keeping it balanced.

    I could have done a better job of articulating the process. Ideally, you each take turns sharing your perspective and having the other party reiterate it to you. That way, you both understand one another's perspective. I think this is similar to (but not identical to) inquiry and advocacy.

    If you feel I've failed to understand your perspective, please do let me know.

    I can't tell you how genuinely happy I am to have this kind of discourse take place on my blog.

    - Doc

  5. I made an incorrect assumption, that the phrase "But you don’t feel you are too critical" implied that on top of just not agreeing with their perception, it meant there was a lack of understanding of the behaviours that were associated with that perception.

    A lot of what you've written describes your intent, or speaks in abstract ways which makes it hard for me to understand how I could apply your advice . If you provided the actual dialogue it would be easier to provide feedback. For example, if I remove the assumption I made in error, I'm still interested in whether you'd suggest someone say:

    "As I'd like you to alter your behaviour, I believe that I should start first, so I'll accept your view that I'm too critical and assure you that I will change, even though I don't believe I have been too critical"

    I believe that if you only agree to change your behaviour in the hope that they will then change theirs, and don't tell them that, then you're hiding information from them (and hiding the fact that you're hiding it). This information would be useful for them to have so that they can make an informed choice. I can't see how this information could 'honest'. Do you see it the same way or differently?