Many managers think unproductive employees lacked motivation. So, they look for ways to get people motivated. As leaders, our companies expect us to be motivating so employees contribute to the organization’s success.

Can we really motivate employees?

I am not really sure how to answer that question. That’s because employees are always motivated. They are motivated by so many things that we leaders do not know.

For some of us, motivating employees is to make them do something they don’t like to do. Or make them love what they hate.

There are books that teach 1001 ways to motivate people.

Salary increase, for example, is a popular motivator. Money is not a motivator. Money helps people achieve what motivates them. And unless we know what motivates people, we will keep on assuming that money can buy motivation.

You can shower people with money. But trying to motivate people using money all the time is also a waste of valuable time.


Because external motivation does not last.

Many leaders got it wrong. They think that for people to perform at their peak, they have to motivate them by dangling a carrot or showing a stick.

Employees must give their best in order for them to get a reward, a bonus, or a salary increase. They get penalized for underachievement. Motivation is not intimidation or manipulation.

Unfortunately, unmotivated employees and demotivating bosses are common in the workplace.

This is why managers are sent to How to Motivate Employees and other canned leadership seminars.

They learned dozens of strategies to influence people. They picked hundreds of tricks. They studied the science of motivation from speakers who make a living out of “motivating” people.

And once a year, they hire motivational speakers who get paid for injecting motivation into every soul.
Are we helpless then? Of course not!

Think different. We don’t have to follow what others have done.

Understand what people really care about.

Motivation is not a by-product of strategies and tricks.

Managers who keep on motivating people will one day find themselves demotivated and demotivating. Because it is a burden to push or pull people toward something they hate.

Motivation is not your job.

To think so is a mistake. This thinking gives leaders all the credit, puts us on a pedestal, and makes us the hero from whom everyone depends.

We deserve the admiration of people for doing our roles as leaders. But call a spade a spade.

People are always motivated.

Motivating employees so they become more productive is missing the point big time. There are many over-motivated underachievers in the workplace.

There are many who are motivated not to give the best performance.

There are many who are sick and tired of being pushed to something they hate or pulled by their leaders from something they love.

People will move to where they want to go. They avoid what they hate.

For example, your salespeople will sell more if they’ll choose to become better salespeople. Your secretary will become a more diligent and passionate secretary if she’ll choose to be.

You can make them walk on fire and you can make them believe that they are powerful beyond measure. But this too doesn’t last.

So stop motivating employees with carrot and stick.

Instead, find out their motivations. Employees have dreams. They have purposes. They have reasons for doing what they are doing today.

What I suggest you do is find out what motivates employees. Wear their shoes. Understand where they are coming from.

Find out how your motivation (of improving productivity, sales, et cetera) is connected to employees’ motivation (sending kids to school, having decent lives, et cetera) and you’ll be able to get what motivates both of you.

A simple mind switch about motivation and motivating employees will move you far.

Jef Menguin

P.S. I challenge you to do two things today.

  1. Invest time in people. Interview them. Find out what motivates them.
  2. Use an empathy map. This tool can help you understand where they are coming from.


Though I believe we cannot “motivate employees”, I recognize that there are strategies and tactics we can use to help people get what they want.

The key for people to keep themselves motivated is to understand that whatever they do with you will contribute to their success.

Leadership is helping people get to where they want to go — or helping them get what they want.

I encourage you to explore the following leadership articles.

  • Multiply Your Impact. Pursue excellence. When you leverage learning, you can grow your impact ten times.
  • Good Leaders Inspire a Shared Vision. Leaders have the ability to paint of picture of tomorrow in a way that people understand. They are good storytellers – and allow others to tell their stories too.
  • Good Leaders Model the Way. You can say that leaders model the way when they walk the talk – and when they practice what they preach.
  • How Successful Leaders Create Value. What does it really mean to create value? Transform the lives of people for who you intend to use your products and services. 
  • Deliver the Mission of Your Organization. A clear and compelling mission moves people to action. It makes the indifferent committed. It makes the unsure confident. 
  • Develop Disciplined Execution. Leaders make the possible happen. All your great plans come to nothing if they are not successfully executed. I have facilitated off-site strategic planning for organizations. I am almost always fascinated by the brilliance, and creativity participants show in creating great plans.
  • Develop Good Leadership Qualities. You can develop good leadership qualities. Anyone who desires to become a leader that people love to follow makes it happen. Leadership isn’t a title or a position.
  • Encourage Creative Leaders. Today, we need creative leaders. In the olden days, people worry about how to divide the economic pie among themselves. 
  • Good Leaders Challenge the Process. Leaders challenge the status quo. They take risks. They help people become more creative and innovative in bringing change.
  • Good Leaders Enable Others to Act. Leaders enable others to act. They find ways to help people become effective and to perform at their best.
  • Good Leaders Encourage the Heart. Leaders encourage the heart. They want people to have the courage and confidence to do what they’ve not done before.

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