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If you think about it, believing you can motivate others – notably, the staff you manage – is arrogant and perhaps self-deceiving. After all, how many bosses in your life motivated you to do things?

Salespeople are certainly motivated if paid for every sale, although such incentives can wane as a comfortable lifestyle is built or even backfire into unethical behaviour. But for most people, motivation comes from within.

Few of us have the charisma or the facility with words to sway others anyway. And most folks in an office come determined to do good work or, if not, have become disenchanted over time and are not likely to embrace a current manager’s passion and motivational attempts. Your key staff members – if creative and innovative – are probably at heart free-thinkers, iconoclasts or even renegades, and obvious attempts to motivate might be greeted with cynical amusement.

In The Motivation Trap, business coach John Hittler argues motivation rarely fulfills its purpose because behind our efforts usually is a push-pull, carrot-and-stick approach. And when pushed, human beings push back. “A great teacher, mentor, or guide allows you to choose your own path, and when you are doing the choosing, motivation is not needed so much,” he writes. The two people who most helped him challenged, implored and taught him, but there were no rewards for progress; the reward was his progress, for him and them.

Motivation can be mysterious – a substance that we can’t quite describe. I’ve observed that imprecision works better than clarity, letting people fill in the details, which backs Mr. Hittler’s point in allowing people to choose a path.

In the mid-1950s, psychologist Frederick Hertzerg’s research led to a classic two-pronged model of motivation, the first element given the confusing name of “hygiene” – essentially, factors at work that don’t spark action, but if not present, demotivate. So things such as decent bosses, a good salary, a collegial atmosphere and job satisfaction must be present for motivation to be possible but are not prime motivators. What motivates: achievement, recognition, an appealing job, responsibility and advancement.

In the recent book How to Lead Others, leadership development consultant John Adair suggests a 50-50 rule: Fifty per cent of a person’s motivation comes from within as we respond to our internal program of needs; 50 per cent comes from outside ourselves, especially from the leadership we encounter in life. He adds eight principles for motivating: Be motivated yourself, select people who are highly motivated, treat each person as an individual, set realistic and challenging targets, remember that progress motivates, create a motivating environment, provide fair rewards and give recognition.

Selecting people who are highly motivated is worth our attention – something to put high on the list when hiring since the burden on you to motivate them is reduced. Mr. Adair suggests a motivating environment involves teamwork and an interesting, stimulating and challenging workplace.

In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, and her husband, developmental psychologist Steven Kramer, studied diaries for 238 people in 26 project teams in seven companies – all in 12,000 individual days. They found it’s not rewards, or recognition, or enchanting words from leaders that gets people going. It’s a sense that they are accomplishing something meaningful, bit by bit, day by day. The couple label it The Progress Principle: Making headway on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long-term progress.

That may seem familiar if you haven’t felt that bosses have motivated you but you have motivated yourself. Maybe the hygiene factors were in place so you weren’t frustrated and you didn’t so much motivate yourself as your progress inspired, stimulated and satisfied you.

I’m good with words and have tricked myself at times into thinking I could motivate with words, but that’s often a trap. It can bore or turn people off and lead to over-prescribing rather than imprecision. I had a boss who used to read Matthew Arnold poems I could never understand at staff meetings, but somehow, we came away stimulated, at least for an hour or two. These days, much is made of purpose as a motivator – seeing the bigger picture in your work that you can be excited or proud about. I suspect that’s true and if a manager is to use words to motivate, the nobler they can make the challenge, the better, with or without poetry.

But it’s helpful to return to my starting point: It may be arrogant to see yourself as a big motivator. The 50-50 rule probably overstates your impact. Be modest. Check that unhygienic factors aren’t working against you. Hire motivated people. Elevate the task with purpose. Find ways to remind people of their daily and weekly progress. Purpose and progress may be the modern two-pronged approach.


  • Be likeable, not liked. Communications consultant Michael McKinney says wanting to be liked is normal, but it makes it difficult to make tough choices and give candid feedback. Try to be likable, without caring whether you are liked.
  • More chief executives were dismissed for ethical lapses in 2018 – scandals or improper conduct by the CEO or other employees – than for poor financial performance or board struggles, according to the 19th annual CEO Success study by PwC – the first time that has happened.
  • A quote not from Machiavelli, but from former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”

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