Return to site

Why Trying to Motivate Others is a Waste of Your Time

By Rick Siderfin

· Effectiveness,Culture,Leadership

I was a team leader with 11 direct reports when I learned it was a waste of time trying to motivate other people. I remember being stunned and disbelieving at first.

I mean, there we were, trying all sorts of "motivational" stuff to get better team performance - and sometimes even (we thought) having some success at it.

I think it was from Jim Collins's classic work Good to Great that I learned this.* It's completely true, as I found out the hard way.

You can waste countless hours trying to be someone else's motivating force.

The two primary forces we use to motivate someone to do what we want them to do are fear and reward.

This is what it looks like using fear and reward to try to motivate others at work:

The carrot and the stick. Nope, lasted for about a week. Let's try it a bit different.The stick and the carrot. OK, that didn't work either. Let's try a big dose of the stick, on it's own. Ouch. OKOK let's go with the carrot, but make it bigger. Good grief, what is it going to take to motivate these people? I can't understand it, if I was them, I would be working like crazy for a carrot this big!

Both "carrot" and "stick" methods can work, for a short while at least. But ultimately, if someone is not in themselves motivated to do what you want them to do, they will slacken off, again and again.

This is a hugely frustrating experience for any leader. Sometimes it can feel like trying to nail jelly to a wall. You might think you have it fixed, but turn your back for a minute, and there it is again, all over the floor - and you're right back to square one.

Why is trying to motivate others such a waste of time?

Because true motivation comes from within.

So no matter how much energy you expend trying to motivate someone, it is largely wasted - only they can motivate themselves.

Sure, you should provide an environment that gives them the best possible chance to do this.

Here is what you should do if someone's performance is below expectations. Ask them what kind of work they enjoy. Ask them what kind of work they would do almost anything to avoid.

Even taking the time to ask questions like this will cause them to take you far more seriously - because you are showing concern for them, as a unique individual, with unique (and changing) concerns, likes, dislikes, and priorities.

They won't expect you to suddenly be able to lift off them all the work that they dislike, and replace it with work that they like. But if you can show that you want to adjust their job role to swing it more towards one that they enjoy, you will find their inner fire starts to flicker.

Follow through on that promise, and you will see the flames roar into life. Their motivation, not yours, will be driving them forwards.

About the author: Rick Siderfin is a copywriter and content marketing expert, when he's not busy capturing aerial photographs and video with drones. You can find out more and hire Rick to write high-authority content for you (or even photograph you from 400 feet above ground level, should you so wish) at or

* Postscript: Seriously, if you never read another business book in your life, you owe it to yourself to beg, borrow, or buy a copy of Good to Great.

You don't have to read it all. Just dive into the first chapter, Good is the Enemy of Great, to get the context. Then, go through each section and study the "chapter summaries" which give a bullet-point list of the main learning points. If you're like me, you'll be so amazed that you will grab the audio download so that you can listen to the man himself, reading the whole book from start to finish.

It's not his theory about what works in business, or anyone else's theory. It's hard, empirical evidence and facts, gathered from years of research of highly successful companies, and it contains success principles and stories of human struggle and accomplishment that apply far beyond just business.

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly