Graham Birkenhead, July 2 2014

It Sounds Absurd but Don't Motivate your Employees

Following on from my blog about the Rock and the Bird, one astute reader asked me about the ‘careful’ way I had written about motivation and inspiration, and so I thought that would be a good point to expand upon for my next blog

So, I encourage you ‘not to motivate your employees, don't even try to motivate them’. And why?  Well simply, it’s not your job. Then, if it’s not your job, what is your job as a leader? It is to know your people well enough to know what their motivation is, and then to provide the necessary triggers to tap into that motivation. I think of this as ‘inspiration’; in leadership, your focus is on your people and your leadership should be inspirational. 

 Motivation and inspiration are often used interchangeably – and while you may disagree on the exact way I use these 2 words, I think it is important to allow for the idea that there are 2 distinct effects at work here – whatever you want to call them. Influencing your people to do something is a 2-step process involving you and them.

 Firstly, motivation implies movement or motive force.  Motivation is a primal, core force that comes from deep within.  Much of that is to do with survival, social acceptance and conservation of effort.  Once those are taken care of, we are more interested in self-development and self-actualization. There may be many similarities from one person to the next in terms of what motivates us, and yet we all have an aspect that is unique to each of us that has been defined by a combination of genetics, experience and culture. It’s a personal mask that drives us to do, or not do things. Whether you are ‘moved’ to eat yet another double cheese burger, or to go on a fitness/diet regime, to lounge around all day or to move a mountain, it results from some sort of trigger or stimulus. And, at a deep level, that is all about what your brain thinks will increase your chance of survival: hoarding food while it’s available, being fit, relaxing, or achieving.  Motivation belongs to the individual, to each and every one of us; so as a leader, don't let your people abdicate responsibility to you for their own motivation.

 Secondly, inspiration literally means breathing in. When the word was first used, air was seen as a life force.  Inspiration is something that ‘calls to action’ (whether mental or physical) and brings to life.  It is something that can trigger motivation, and so it is the important other half of the ‘doing’ equation, which we can consider as:  Action = Inspiration + Motivation. Inspiration provides the vision or possibility that in turn triggers the motivation that results in the person (or bird) doing something.


 As a leader, it is your job to have that vision, to understand what is important for your people, ie. what drives them to do things, and tailor and communicate that vision in such a way that it dovetails with their motivation.  Of course, you could inspire yourself. After all, the first rule of leadership is to lead yourself and you cannot do that without inspiration and motivation.

 So, armed with this new information, look at the people around you and invest the time to understand what their motivational triggers are. Go forth and inspire; and be inspired. Turn this information into knowledge through playing with it and become a better leader.

 Inspire. Lead. And don't ever try to motivate people again.   

Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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