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Leadership Skills: Tap Into Team Members’ Existing Motivation

Most leaders have the motivation process exactly backward!

For who knows how long, when you (a leader) wanted me (a follower) to commit to high performance, you and I both expected YOU to tell ME what’s in it for me to work with you.

It’s much smarter to tap into my existing motivation by asking ME to tell YOU what’s in it for me.

It’s actually kind of funny to look at the transaction from outside the habit pattern. The truth is, it’s much smarter (and a lot easier!) for you to tap into my existing — if often hidden — motivation by asking ME to tell YOU what’s in it for me.

Look at it this way:

  1. Everyone alive has hopes, dreams, and wants for herself/himself.
  2. People without any hopes, dreams, or wants are dead — they’ve ceased all motion.
  3. People who get out of bed and go to work have mentally and emotionally linked what they are doing today to their hopes, dreams and wants in a way that makes sense to them.
  4. Therefore, everyone has their own EXCELLENT reasons for investing in work projects — even if they’ve learned to deny or hide those reasons, sometimes even from themselves.
  5. So, the best way for me to serve my fellow workers is to help them uncover and focus on their OWN motivations — even if they attempt to convince me (through resistance and denial strategies) that they have none.

To that end, if I think I need to motivate others, it behooves me to ask them, “What’s in it for you to work on this project with this team?” and to keep them in the conversation until THEY come up with the personal benefits that move them into action.

The method is simple. It’s powerful. It’s responsible. Watch out!

Get Started With This 5-Minute Practice Tip

Practice uncovering existing motivation on yourself FIRST.

When you can see — and accept — your own intrinsic motivation, it will be much easier to see and accept others’. When faced with a task that’s not inherently motivating (like taking out the garbage, folding laundry, mowing the lawn, or emptying the dishwasher), ask yourself, “What’s in it for me to do this?”

Pursue the questioning until you find yourself moving. Note what got you going. You’ll discover much about your own motivation.

Stretch Practice

At least three times this week ask others, “What’s in it for you?” Remember, if the first answer doesn’t appear to be MOVING (i.e., energizing) to the person, feed that answer back and follow-up with, “When you get that, what does that do for you?”

Here’s a brief and flagrant example:

You: Christopher, what’s in it for you to help me with project ABC?
Me: Uh, continued employment? (Said with a slightly cynical tone, not energizing.)
You: And when you get to keep your job at this company, how does that serve you?
Me: It keeps my spouse off my back. (Again, said with a cynical tone, not energizing.)
You: And when you can keep your spouse off your back, what does that do for you?
Me: Well, I get to go fishing. (Said with a smile broadening across my face, probably energizing.)

Continue until you can both see how what the person is doing is connected to the future s/he envisions.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Build a responsible team (or family) and master your leadership skills with The Leadership Gift Program for Leaders.

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5 Responses to Leadership Skills: Tap Into Team Members’ Existing Motivation

  1. Christopher. I like this post. It’s taking the next step closer to the individual and some micro analysis of their conversations. Very well said/done.

    I see the responses in the example you put and I appreciate that you mentioned, “even if they hide it”. That behavior is one of the examples I talk when I’m getting someone to recognize the environment they are in. The individual can take a look at their responses, regardless of input as a responsibility measure, but… I stand in front of the business leaders to find out if they see this type of denial. I hope they ask themselves, “How much of this is the environment we’ve created?” and “What can we do about it.”

    I’d add. Sociologically Programmed Responses. “I’m fine.” These responses aren’t protective as they are believed. These responses prevent others from helping you or getting involved in the day.

    • Christopher says:

      Thanks Scotty, especially for calling for the aware or at least astute leader to listen for these hidden and pre-programmed responses and ask “how is my leadership/environment creating this?” Beautiful.
      An article about a leadership team in Detroit I was just beginning to work with (In Their Own Words: Agile IT Leadership and Teamwork at DTE Energy) refers to these leaders’ conscious management of context rather than it’s throughput (or content). Here’s a snippet:

      ITS leaders are not just deliberate in style but conscious about the context — the environment — they seek to realize and sustain. They boldly state their convictions, and they agree to hold each other accountable to the same. ITS leaders choose to shape the culture rather than be shaped by it.

      I think this is an important distinction for middle and senior leaders — to design a value stream that is self-organizing of course, so you can let go of the content of the process and trust it to the organization, allowing you to focus on the context. This is clearly not easy nor is it the norm. What do you think?

  2. PM Hut says:

    Hi Christopher,

    I was touched by this sentence in your post:

    “People without any hopes, dreams, or wants are dead — they’ve ceased all motion.”

    I can’t tell you how many of those I have seen. I think sometimes that the safety of the long term job and the fear of the unknown is what causes this demotivation…

    I would really like to publish your post on PM Hut ( ), where I’m sure a lot of project managers will enjoy it. Please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

  3. Christopher says:

    Hi PM Hut, agreed. Indeed that’s an important line for anyone who wants to understand a key starting point for transformation and leadership — to understand that a “reality” can be shared or not, and that you can hear someone’s point of view as true for them while also reflecting on what else it means.

    Many low motivated individuals are mirroring and coping with the ecosystem they are working in. Compassion is usually a good response to low motivation, sarcasm, avoidance, or cynicism. My intent as a leader or coach is to see if I can show them their choice to submit to that “reality” or change it for themselves and those around them.

    I’m honored to have you request for republication. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Episode 15: The Perfect World of Agile | The Agile Revolution

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