Skills for Fixing Motivation Issues


Last month we discussed how to determine the “real” reasons behind performance failure. Now that we have determined causation, this month we are going to examine one of those possible reasons for performance failure: motivation, or lack of it. But before proceeding we first need to be quite sure that motivation is indeed the driver of the poor performance. Keep in mind that the Fundamental Attribution Error leads us to make bad guesses about why people do what they do and that bad guess is often lack of motivation. Therefore, ensure that you’ve drilled down enough to determine that motivation is indeed a cause. Once you have done this it is time to motivate. What is Motivation?

I have been working with and training supervisors and managers for the past 30+ years and the issue of how to motivate employees is an issue that is always high on the list of concerns that they have. First, let’s look at what motivation is and where it comes from, and then we will look at a couple of skills that you can apply to generate the energy necessary to get the performance that you want.

For our purposes, we will define motivation as “the level of eagerness to engage in and accomplish a specific task”. We have all had situations where we couldn’t wait to get involved in an activity (motivated) and conversely we have all had situations that we dreaded and put off engaging in as long as possible (unmotivated).

Motivation comes in two forms: Extrinsic and Intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation simply means motivation from outside of the person and includes things like positive feedback, praise, money, negative feedback, etc. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the person and is commonly referred to as “self” or “achievement” motivation. It is the desire to succeed simply because you value succeeding. It is a sense of “personal pride”.

We all need and for the most part have both in our lives. We need money (extrinsic) and we like to succeed (intrinsic). When people fail because of lack of motivation, we first need to determine the source. Is it extrinsic or intrinsic? The reason for having this knowledge is because the “fix” will vary with each?

Fixing Extrinsic Motivation

Fixing extrinsic motivation is easier than intrinsic fixes because you have more direct control over extrinsic fixes.

You can provide praise for success. You can at times provide financial reward for success but throwing money at the issue is not always the best approach.  You can also provide negative feedback for failure. In other words, if you determine that the problem is extrinsic motivation and you know what specific extrinsic factor is involved, you can just fix that factor and most of the time the issue will be resolved.

Often the person is not motivated because they aren’t aware of the likely extrinsic consequences of their actions. A very useful technique in this case is to “Bring Consequences to Life”.

  • Help the person discover the “natural” consequences of failure.
  • What impact can their continued failure have on the team? On profits? On salary increases? On their future? On their family? Etc.
  • When appropriate you can also bring “imposed” consequences to life such as their continued employment, but using “threats” is less powerful than their understanding of the natural consequences of continued failure.
  • Additionally, it is always better to have the person identify the consequences on their own rather than telling them. Self discovery creates more ownership and understanding which in turn creates more motivation going forward.

Fixing Intrinsic Motivation

It is much harder, however, to fix intrinsic motivation issues. When the person just doesn’t like the task or see the need to perform up to standard you have an intrinsic motivation issue.

While there are many techniques for dealing with this, I would suggest one that I have found to work most of the time: “Connect to Self-Respect”. Intrinsic motivation is directly tied to a person’s sense of self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect. The idea here is to find what the person values - how the person wants to be seen by others - and make the connection between their performance success/failure and that value.

For example, I am not intrinsically motivated to mow and trim my yard but I do want to be seen as a good neighbor who takes pride in my property and who wants to abide by city ordinances. Understanding that failure to take care of my property would be incongruent with my values motivates me to do something I don’t really like doing.

I bet you have something that you don’t like doing, too. Think about how failure to do it can impact the way you are seen by others and how it can impact the way you see yourself. In other words, when holding someone accountable for failure that is due to an intrinsic motivation issue, help them understand how continued failure is incongruent with what they value most, and how success is congruent with their values. Motivating others is more than simply giving and taking away. It is helping them understand the real impact of success and failure.

What’s the Point?

Successful performance requires both skill and motivation. When you determine that failure is due, at least in part to motivation, then your job is to determine the best approach for getting that motivation. Start by determining whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivation is the issue and then apply the appropriate tool to energize performance.