No Matter How Badly You Want It

“You cannot motivate anyone to do anything,” I observed. Martin was stumped.

“But I thought that was part of my job,” he protested.

“You can think that all you want, but it is not possible,” I continued. I could see in Martin’s eyes that he was conflicted between what he thought and his real experience trying to motivate his team members.

“Well, you may be right,” he finally replied. “Sometimes it seems easy to get people to do what I want, but other times, it seems impossible.”

“When it seems easy, what do you think is going on?” I asked.

“When it seems easy, it’s like they already wanted to do it in the first place.” Martin paused. “It seems impossible when they didn’t ever want to do it.”

“So, it doesn’t seem to matter what you want, as the manager, or how badly you want it. The only thing that seems to matter is whether your team members want to do it?”

The lights were circling in Martin’s head. The whole time, as a manager, he had been looking at motivation as getting people to do something he wanted. His mind was beginning to change. -TF

7 thoughts on “No Matter How Badly You Want It

  1. kurt

    When people don’t wanna do it, that makes me curious. WHY don’t they wanna do it. There’s always an excuse but finding the real reason makes it interesting.
    When it’s just a lousy thing to do but somebody got to do it, then it becomes difficult. It seems then there nothing to gain… How to handle that Tom?

  2. Jeffrey Paul Anderson

    My dictionary says “motivate” is to “stiumulate someone’s interest in or enthusiasm for doing something”. Managers don’t do that? Getting people to do something you want them to do uses some combination of power, influence and authority. Power is the ability to enact consequences, authority is a granted property which involves rights and obligation to decide, and influence is the abilty to modify behavior through communication. So I’m pretty sure I disagree with your assertion. These are the tools of management, and you can indeed change someone from not wanting to do something to being enthusiastic about it….. just not all the time. If you have power, influence and authority about a given change… you have the best possible situation. If you have all three and someone won’t go along.. you will need to figure out why.

  3. Wally Bock

    You can’t motivate someone in the sense that you can’t “make” them want to do something. You can, however, do several things to set up the environment so they’re more likely to want to do it. You can explain to them why it’s a good thing to do. You can model the behavior so they can see the benefits. Then, if the stars align, they will motivate themselves. Every supervisor I’ve ever trained, though, brings stories of people who just won’t wanna, no matter what.

  4. Kathleen Conway

    When there’s a “lousy thing to do but somebody got to”, the manager needs to be honest. Don’t call the scutwork ‘development’; figure out a way to share it (including you). A bookstore chain I work with has a “Cleaning Olympics” all hands, 30 min.

    When I worked as a social service worker we used to counsel the kids on their first job, “Act as If”: act as if you care (about the customer, about being there, etc.). Often, if they acted as if they cared, they began to care.

  5. John Hunter

    Douglas McGregor discussed this topic well in 1960. He explained theory X management (managers believe the workers will do only what they are forced, coerced into doing) and theory Y management (managers believe the workers want to do a good job and the managers job is to help them do so) in his excellent book: The Human Side Of Enterprise.

    When a manager thinks in a theory y way they assume people wish to do a good job. If the employees are not doing some task the way the manager wants, the manager needs to figure out what is wrong with the system that leads to this outcome (not what is wrong with the employees).

    When you view the problem as one of motivating workers that puts the problem within the worker. They need to be changed. That is the wrong strategy, most of the time. They want to do a good job the job of a manager is to remove the de-motivation within the system.

  6. Howie

    I think it’s no longer called motivation if you are telling someone to do something they don’t want to do. Motivation do help people in doing something they are not capable of reaching but not on what they don’t want to do.

  7. Jeffrey Paul Anderson

    Interesting perspectives. I’m with you, Kathleen. There will always be work which isn’t exciting on it’s own. You can’t always step into a perfect environment, nor can you always repair one that is not right. The job of a leader is to describe the present and future states in a way that MOTIVATES people to work together towards a common goal…. and sometimes do work they wouldn’t otherwise be remotely interested in. It helps if the not-so-fun is shared, but it is fundamentally a lot more motivating if they believe that they are part of a grander transformation or creation. That’s essentially how startups work.


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