11 Signs That It Might Be Time for a Motivation Tune-Up

In her new book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does, author Susan Fowler reminds leaders that employees are always motivated—it’s just the quality of their motivation that’s a problem sometimes. Fowler shares how the repeated use of motivational carrots & sticks might get results in the short term, but often have negative consequences long-term.

That’s why she labels a motivational mindset created by the use of rewards and/or punishment as sub-optimal and why she encourages individuals and leaders to check-in on their own motivational mindset occasionally to make sure that they aren’t just going through the motions.  Fowler knows from the research that sustained, healthy, long-term motivation comes from an aligned and integrated motivational outlook where work is connected to a higher purpose and people see how their role fits into the bigger picture.

How can you tell when it might be time for a motivational outlook check-up?  Here are some of the common symptoms Fowler has seen. Consider a one-on-one conversation focused on motivation when normally productive employees are:

  1. Missing deadlines
  2. Performing below expectation on important goals or projects
  3. Not living up to their potential in a role
  4. Often in a bad mood that permeates the workplace
  5. Not taking initiative in circumstances where it is needed
  6. Displaying emotion that is out of character or seems disproportionate to the situation
  7. Undermining the positive energy of others
  8. Rejecting helpful feedback
  9. Getting defensive easily or often
  10. Seemingly out of alignment with the organization’s purpose and values
  11. Ignoring health and or safety issues

Any or all of these symptoms can indicate an employee with a sub-optimal motivational outlook.  To reframe and potentially upshift motivation to something more optimal, Fowler recommends a conversation focused on the issue, but she cautions against three common mistakes managers make; trying to problem solve, impose your values, or expect an immediate shift.

To avoid these common mistakes, Fowler recommends the following:

Refrain from Problem Solving:  This is a different type of conversation.  As a leader, you will be sorely tempted to share your expertise, but do not confuse a conversation about internal motivation with a problem-solving session.

Don’t Impose Your Values: One of the biggest mistakes leaders make with motivational outlook conversations is assuming another person holds or appreciates the same values. Despite your good intentions, imposing your values on others tends to provoke an imposed motivational outlook—one of the sub-optimal outlooks you are trying to avoid.

Do Not Expect an Immediate Shift: Relax, practice mindfulness, and allow the conversation to take its course. Realize that a person may not shift during this first conversation—it will happen when the person is ready. Remember, the purpose of a motivational outlook conversation is to discuss and explore motivational options and then shift, if they choose to do so.

Why Motivating People Doesn't Work.. and What Does Book CoverTo learn more on improving motivation inside your organization, download a free chapter of Fowler’s book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does.  You can also check on your own motivational outlook through a mini-assessment. And don’t miss an opportunity to participate in a live webinar with Fowler on Wednesday, October 22. Susan will be presenting on Rethinking Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation. The event is free, courtesy of Cisco WebEx and The Ken Blanchard Companies.

11 thoughts on “11 Signs That It Might Be Time for a Motivation Tune-Up

  1. Absolutely … everyone is motivated! Motivated to do as best they can, motivated to behave indifferently, motivated to perform “suboptimally,” motivated to support others, motivated to commit sabotage, etc.

    First, if we are waiting for formal performance reviews to address motivations, we are missing other intervention, supervision, and leadership opportunities along the way. No matter what flavor-of-the-month version is being used for the reviews, all formal reviews invariably succeed at six things: (a) Demotivation [“You’re doing great, BUT …”]; (b) Discipline [If it feels like a slap in the face, it is a slap in the face]; (c) Documentation [Great. How will I ever put this behind me?]; (d) Defensiveness [“You really don’t have a clue what I do.”; (e) Disingenuous Behavior (Candor dies a thousand deaths, the messenger is always shot, and trust is quickly thrown under the bus]; and, (f) Delayed Feedback [“Really? You couldn’t have asked me about this six months ago?”].

    Second, if the focus of this article are changes in the behavior of normally well-performing employees, the focus needs to be on performance, not motivation. Motivation is interesting, but it seldom matters. On the other hand, performance always matters.

    ASK THEM why their performance has changed for the worse. We work with people. People will always be imperfect, people will always have issues, people will always have problems, trials, and tribulations. That applies both to them and to ourselves. Find out from them what the reason(s) is/are for the downturn in performance.

    If they trust you, they will tell you and you can try to help them. Keep an open mind and an open heart. Be ready to accept your own responsibility and accountability.

    If they don’t trust you, the only tool left is the formal performance evaluation and formal due process. If they don’t trust you, you have serious organizational behavioral problems that performance evaluation processes alone will not cure.

    • Hi Scott–thank you for your passionate and thoughtful response. All I can say is yes, yes, yes, and yes! I can tell that you have been in this situation and understand all of the nuances involved in helping someone else succeed at work. I appreciate your advice for leaders to ask questions, keep an open mind and an open-heart–and to be ready to accept your own possible responsibility as a leader for the situation. I think that attitude gets at the core of what Susan Fowler is proposing when it comes to individual motivation at work. Leaders will be more successful if they ask questions to better understand an employee’s motivation than they will be if they apply blanket strategies such as incentives and sanctions–and then follow-up by holding people accountable (which seems to be the goal of most performance reviews.) As you stated, in most cases, this approach causes more harm than good the way it is currently applied. Thanks for adding to this conversation!

  2. healthy, long-term motivation comes from an aligned and integrated motivational outlook where work is connected to a higher purpose and people see how their role fits into the bigger picture.

    This is a terrific statement. It is important to reflect on your goals, take action, and reflect on your actions. This statement speaks about legacy to me. Life is short so you should lead today because you never know what tomorrow brings.

  3. Dear TWL–thanks for joining the conversation and bringing the word “legacy” into the discussion. How do you want to be remembered as a leader? What type of long-term impact do you want to have on your organization and the people working in it? Those are the types of questions that guide you to higher values and more optimal outlooks. Thanks for the highlight!

  4. Reblogged this on Lead Me On and commented:
    This is very useful — and always timely! Motivation is often misinterpreted and mismanaged. We imagine our “followers” should be motivated by what motivates us — and we respond to the challenges of connecting performance excellence with mission and culture of an organization. I particularly like the tip — don’t impose your values! Sometimes this is such a tender leadership task…

    • Hi Carol–you are so right that motivation is often misinterpreted and mismanaged–and assuming that followers will be motivated by the same things as leaders is one of the issues that trips leaders up. One of the keys to good leadership is for managers to take the time to talk to their people, learn a little bit more to find out what engages each of them individually, and then act on that information. Thanks for joining in the conversation!

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