Motivate Others By Not Trying To Motivate Others

Instead, Try Shaping The Environment

Photo by Saksham Gangwar

Sometimes it Works…

I was ready to run through a brick wall. We’d gathered for Coach’s last pre-game pep talk, prior to the season-ending grudge match against our hated cross-suburb nemesis, Grissom Middle School. Never mind the fact that we’d all be in the same high school next year, playing or rooting for each other. This was war. And Coach let us know so.

“Gentlemen, these are the games you live for. The reason we’ve worked so hard this season to put ourselves in this position. The reason we’ve run all of those laps, done all of those pushups, studied all of those plays.”

Yes, we’d run a couple of laps after each practice, but we were always more interested in watching the girls’ soccer team on the neighboring field than we were in preparing our stamina to outlast the evil Grissom Guardsmen.

Photo by Ethan Elias

Yes, in full football gear, I could manage about 6 pushups. If I noticed any of the girls soccer team looking our way, I somehow mustered the strength for a seventh.

We had four plays — more of a brochure than a playbook. Run left, run middle, run right, short pass to the tight end. We hadn’t run the pass play in a game yet that season.

None of this mattered. Coach had us convinced that this was what all of that imaginary blood, sweat and tears were for. This moment. We burst onto the field feeling like we could take on Lombardi’s Packers.


…And Sometimes It Doesn’t

My first post-college boss may have been a former athlete or coach, or maybe he’d just watched the “Go out there and win one for the Gipper” scene from the Knute Rockne movie too many times.

Either way, the testosterone-fueled bravado didn’t translate from locker room to conference room.

Photo by Asa Rodger

Instead of bursting out of the meeting, ready to bulldoze through those emails and dive in to those sales calls, we meandered to the coffee machine, making sure our boss what out of ear shot before cracking jokes at his expense.


Here’s What To Do Instead

Maybe a fiery locker room pep talk can work once in a while. But even when it does, the effect wears off. And then it’s time for another pep talk. Eventually, you run out of fire and brimstone. And your audience will start to see through it all — “here he goes again.”

The simple truth is that it’s impossible to motivate others in a professional setting, with their long-term engagement in mind. The simple truth is that the best you can hope to do is to help others find their own motivation.

Photo by Lily Lvnatikk

We’re motivated by needs — our physical needs are motivators that shape our behavior. When I’m hungry, I’m motivated to find something to eat. When I’m cold, I’m motivated to don a sweater or adjust the thermostat. When I’m tired, I’m motivated to reach for a cozy blanket and chapter 97 of “Moby Dick” — two pages and I’m out like a light, every time.

Just as physical needs will shape behavior, psychological needs are motivators as well. We behave in ways that get our needs met, both physical and psychological. And tapping into others’ psychological needs can be the key to the castle.

There’s a natural trap, and we fall into it when we make the assumption that we all have the same needs. In the physical realm, this is a pretty safe assumption. If you see your partner shivering, it’s a pretty good idea to bring her a blanket. If you hear his stomach growl as you dive headfirst into that German chocolate cake, maybe share some with him.

Where we go wrong is when we apply this very natural assumption — we all have the same needs — to the psychological realm.

My colleague Donna and I deliver 2-day training courses together, several times per year. Donna is highly extroverted. Delivering training to a roomful of people energizes her. I’m quite introverted, emotionally and psychologically drained by this same activity. Donna and I have struck a deal. We drive separately, and we go to dinner together about a 30-minute drive from the training facility. This gives me 30 minutes of silent alone time in the car to decompress, so that I can be fully engaged in “talking it out” with Donna at the restaurant. Donna and I would not still be training partners if we hadn’t made these kinds of adjustments to meet one another’s psychological and emotional needs.


The Four Environmental Motivators

You can’t motivate anyone, at least not in the long term, but you can shape the environment in ways that help others find their own motivation. According to research done by The Predictive Index, a firm specializing in behavioral and cognitive assessments, there are four primary motivational needs that drive behavior, especially at work — the need for control, the need for interaction with other people, the drive for process, and the need for details.

Here’s how to identify the primary motivating needs in the people you work with, and how to shape the environment to connect with these needs and engage and motivate people for the long term.

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1. The Need for Control.

How to Identify:

People driven primarily by their need for control are probably the easiest to spot. They’re self-confident and behave as such, taking charge in situations naturally and easily. More interested in the end result (strategy) versus how they’re getting there (tactics), they’re likely to ask questions and seek information about the overall direction, end goal, or strategy behind a given project. They’re likely to need “just enough” information / details before they’re ready to dive in and get started.

How to Connect:

Give plenty of freedom. Point them in the direction of the end goal, and let them figure out how to get there. If there are non-negotiable constraints or boundaries, make sure these are clear or they may trample all over them. Give them a challenge, or frame the project as if it is a battle that they can win and have a lasting impact on. Make sure they know why the work is important, and define what’s in it for them (visibility, possibility of promotion, lasting impact on the company, etc.). Their self-confidence is internally generated, and they’d rather have us tell them what they need to fix rather than how great they are. Overdoing praise can lead to skepticism regarding your motives.

2. The Need for Interaction With Other People.

How to Identify:

Though not exactly, this is the drive most closely associated with extroversion. These are the “people people,” seemingly as comfortable in a group of strangers as they are their own families, making friends quickly and easily. Most interested in people dynamics, they’re likely to ask questions and seek information about who’s involved, who’s on board and who isn’t, and who the key players are.

How to Connect:

Give lots of opportunity for people interaction. Allow them the time and space they need for relationships with the people they’re working with. They use these relationships to get the work done more effectively, so don’t consider it a purely social need. Give them lots of opportunity for visibility, and focus on their accomplishments and achievements. Make sure they understand what they bring to the team, and how others benefit from their skills and knowledge. Their self-confidence comes externally, from understanding how and why they matter to the people around them.

3. The Need for Process.

How to Identify:

Look for checklists, systems, and structures. Step 1 when they embark on a new task or project is to create a plan. They’re governed by schedules and task lists, and are likely to want to finish one task completely before moving on to the next thing. They tend to prioritize by “first in, first out,” and are very linear in their approach to work. They’re likely to ask questions and seek information about deadlines, processes and systems that they need to work with, and how to get the work done as much as what the end goal is.

How to Connect:

If a plan already exists, make sure they have access to it. Get their feedback on the plan, and stay open to changing it based on their input. They’re likely to be the first to see faults in a plan, and often know how to remedy those faults. If a plan doesn’t exist, ask them to create one, then use their plan to structure your project check-ins with them. Same with systems and processes. If a process to get the work done doesn’t exist, ask them to create one along the way. Don’t be afraid to give them similar types of tasks / projects, as they’ll be energized by getting to use the process they created. Give them the time and space they need to complete the process. If they’re interrupted halfway through, they’re likely to want to start over from the beginning. Self-confidence comes from the familiar — the familiarity of a standard process or system to work with.

4. The Need for Details.

How to Identify:

People with a high need for details are often perfectionists, rarely satisfied with “good enough.” Since they need a lot of details, they’re likely to give a lot of details (we all tend to give the world what we need from the world). They write long emails and cram as much information onto their Powerpoint slides as tiny font will allow. When they ask what time it is, they really do want to know how to build the watch. They’re motivated by these details, not because they need them, but because they’re more comfortable when they have them. The more details they have, the more perfectly they can complete the work.

How to Connect:

Expect lots of questions. Don’t think you can have a 5-minute hallway conversation with them about anything work-related. For any conversation about a new project or task, schedule at least 30 minutes, and allow them to come back later with still more questions. Have answers ready for them. If you don’t know the answers, tell them where they could go to get them. Let them know your exact expectations. They will define what’s acceptable as nothing less than perfection, so if you only need the 80% solution, you’ll need to define that as the “perfect” answer for that point in time. Give lots of reassurance and provide a safety net, as their natural perfectionism will typically have them worrying about what’s wrong. Self-confidence comes from knowing the details.


Stop asking how you can motivate your team and the people around you. At least in the professional workplace, you can’t. Start focusing on providing an environment where people can find their own motivation. Tap into their sources of self-confidence, as self-confidence is at the heart of productivity.

Step one is to pinpoint which of the above four needs suit the people you’d like to motivate. Pay attention to the kinds of questions they ask. Do they ask about results and strategy? That’s evidence of a need for control. Do they ask about people? Evidence of a need for interaction with others. Plans, systems, and processes? Evidence of the need for process. Details? You guessed it, the need for details.

So what if you’re wrong? Great news! You’ve improved your odds for next time. Adjust your approach and try another drive.

Step two is to find ways to get more of that primary need met.

Simple, although certainly not easy. But when you start to figure it out, stand back and watch the magic start to happen. The payoff will be well worth the effort.