A Million Dollar Question: How Do I Motivate My People?

If ever there was a million dollar question, this is it.

How do I motivate my people?

Clearly we all wish that all the people working for us were energetically and diligently figuring out how to do better every day, both on the job and off the job. We want 110% put forth with the best interests of the company on the top of everyone’s mind.

So you must get out there and “motivate your people to do more, better!”

Well, quite frankly, that is impossible.

Positive motivation only comes from within.

Motivation is the reason or reasons a person has for acting or behaving in a certain way. These reasons can originate from inside us or from outside us. Those two sources are known respectively as intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

“Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.” (Coon & Mitterer, 2010)

The issue with intrinsic motivations is that no outsider can ever expect to truly understand a person’s intrinsic motivations. In fact, most people don’t truly understand their own intrinsic motivations.

“It’s fun, interesting, captivating, enjoyable…” and intrinsically motivating. Who knows?

If you will never know what motivated a person, then leave it to the individual to pursue.

As for extrinsic motivations, those are provided to us by outside influences. In the workplace, this means things like peer pressure, the culture, rewards, incentives, visions, directives, and rules, along with things like value and mission statements.

Now we’re talking. Those are tangible motivations. As the boss, manager, leader and great communicator, you can control those, right?

“Set a great vision and communicate it effectively. That will motivate your people.”

Hold on!

As it turns out, if what you ultimately want is sustained peak performance, this can only be achieved by unleashing a person’s intrinsic motivations. And to do that you must minimize extrinsic motivators.

Time to stop trying to motivate people.

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan proved in over 30 years of research with contributions from many other psychologists that almost all extrinsic motivations interfere with intrinsic motivations.

And actually, the research showed that a person’s performance drops as extrinsic motivators increase. Meaning for example, contrary to popular belief, monetary rewards have a negative effect on motivation. It’s not about the money. It’s about wanting to do better for the sake of doing better.

Million Dollar Leadership Development Question About Motivation

Deci and Ryan discovered that to be highly motivated, every person requires the simultaneous existence of the same three things: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. That is a very, very powerful statement with significant implications for management at every level.

Over my 34 years of managing people, I found this to absolutely be true. I led my subordinate managers to provide high levels of autonomy and to ensure people were well-trained and within a highly collaborative, well-supplied, open environment. This is when performance gaps closed almost entirely.

Avoid the motivation trap.

You simply cannot motivate someone. All you can do as the boss is to unleash their intrinsic motivations. That means you don’t do what might squash it. And when you get yourself out of the way even those that you thought less of, that you believed were simply not motivated enough to ever do a good job, will surprise you.

Just as with The Biggest Mistake, you are not really at fault. We are told over and over to try to “motivate” the people that work for us. The most well-intentioned leaders try it. And the myriad ways to do so are widely touted. It’s tough to avoid the trap!

So then if you are wondering…

“Why aren’t some or most of my people motivated?”

More than likely the reason is because you are trying to motivate them.

Wait, do you owe me a million dollars? ;)


This is part 2 of a six-part series to dispel some common misconceptions that trip up managers – causing you to lead in the wrong direction, producing unintended consequences.

Go to Don’t Get Tripped Up to access the entire series.

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Ben Simonton

Ben Simonton Managed diverse groups for 34+ years, including as an executive in charge of a 1,300 person unionized organization. He made all the managing mistakes one can make, then devised solutions for 99.9% of people management issues. His mission is to take you beyond great to exceptional.