Using Conversations to Motivate Others

We recently had a manager, let’s call her Lisa, ask “How do I motivate the people on my team to care about the project we have?”  Interesting question, but it is misdirected.  Rather than focusing on their motivation, we told Lisa to focus on her conversations.

Motives and Motivation

Managers and social scientists have long been interested in why people do what they do.  Why, for example, are some people willing to work late on a project when others aren’t?  Why do some people seem to work hard and others don’t?

The popular explanation for these differences is that people have different motives and motivations.  Motives are believed to be internal conditions that cause a person to act in a particular way.  People are already “motivated” or “not motivated” to behave in particular ways, and we often find ourselves trying to figure out how to change a person who is “not motivated” into someone who is “motivated”.

Lisa believed the people on her team didn’t care enough about the project.  She wanted to change their motivation so they would care more about the project and thus work harder and in more effective ways for its success.

The trouble is, we can’t see motives.  If they exist at all, they are internal and hidden from our view.  Lisa couldn’t see inside the people on her team to know for sure whether they “cared” or not.  She could only see the work they did and the ways they interacted with her and with each other. The truth is that Lisa doesn’t know anything about their insides, only about their external actions and the visible results they are – or are not – producing.

Lisa would be better off giving up the attempt to change their motivations and just asking herself, “What can I do to alter their actions and the results they produce?”

Lisa and Her Boss

The best chance you have of getting people more engaged in your project is to change the type of conversations you are having with them.

We asked Lisa, “Have you ever worked on a project you didn’t want to do?”

“Of course”, she replied.

“Would it be fair to say, you weren’t motivated to do it, but you did it anyway?”

“Yes, absolutely!  In fact, I once worked on a project I hated, but I still did it.”

“Did you care about that project?”

“No, not at all.  I just wanted it over.”

“If you didn’t care, why did you do it?”

Lisa thought for a minute and replied, “Two reasons.  First, it was important to my boss, whom I respected considerably.  And second, because I had told him I would do it.”

We asked, “How did you know the project was important to him?”

“He told me all about the project and how it related to the new product development strategy the company was undertaking. He said it was critical to our future success.  And then he looked me in the eye and asked me if I would help make the project a success.  How could I say no?”

Notice that Lisa’s boss didn’t try to do anything about her motivation.  He didn’t try to get her to care – in fact, Lisa didn’t even like the project, though her boss never knew that.

Her boss took the time to tell her how important the project was to him and to the company.  He had an initiative conversation in which he created a future that was important. Then he asked her to participate in making that future real.

All You’ve Got Are Conversations

Lisa realized that she had never really explained the importance of the project. She had never really talked to her team about why this particular project mattered, how it could be accomplished, or who else would be involved.  She had reviewed the basic project plan as it had been given to her.

“I see that I just presented the plan to them,” Lisa said, “and I didn’t really go over the way it connected to the new corporate push to use social media for reaching customers in new ways. They were in the big meeting in the auditorium about the change in corporate strategies, and I assumed they would make the connection. So when I announced the project, I told them the schedule and assignments and just assumed they would do their jobs.”

“This project might look like a boring research project, but it is part of a bigger three-year plan to create new customer communications and new product lines. I never really had a conversation with them to be sure they were on board with that. When they didn’t seem to step up, I figured the problem was with them – they didn’t care.  I now see it may be more about how I talked to them – or didn’t.”

Conversations are your only tool for getting other people to do things.  Those conversations might impact people’s motivation – we don’t know about that.  We do know that it is easy to change your conversations. Let us know what you think by posting a comment.

[This article reprinted with permission from The Great Managing Newsletter]

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