How leaders motivate – or not


Here’s a great quote that speaks to the true nature of good leadership:

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

The key here is “because he wants to do it.” This is called intrinsic motivation, and it’s the only type of motivation that works reliably and in the long term.

Companies who practice this find that they no longer need to struggle to motivate people and light their fire – people motivate themselves. They approach work with zest, creativity and energy because what they want to do matches what the company wants them to do.

You don’t need to whip them with an endless succession of bonuses, prizes, thinly veiled threats, cheap corporate tchotchkies or meaningless awards to get them to perform. And anyway, there’s no way any of that can ever match the results people create when they’re simply happy at work.

Peter Block and Peter Koestenbaum put it like this in their excellent book Freedom and accountability at work:

We currently act as if people are not inherently motivated, rather that they go to work each day and wait for someone else to light their fire.

This belief is common among managers and employees alike…

It is right and human for managers to care about the motivation and morale of their people, it is just that they are not the cause of it.

True motivation can only come from inside yourself – in life and at work. Goals that others set up for you, with no regard for your wishes can never truly motivate, no matter what punishments or rewards are held up before you.

So: What motivates you at work? What tasks do you approach with relish? What parts of your work fill you with energy and a natural desire to do a great job? Please write a comment, I’d really like to know.

I previously explored motivation here:

26 thoughts on “How leaders motivate – or not”

  1. Laozi said over 2500 years ago:
    “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

    Nothing motivates me more than seeing my boss using the software I created for him. I discovered that I’m very reluctant to implement certain features that I see as a whim… but sometimes this whims turn out to be important pieces of the consultation process. Understanding the requirements and the impact of a certain things is motivating for me… Sometimes I’m lucky and I foresee a certain requirement and… when I see the joy he gets out of that discovery… that too is motivating…

    We all crave to feel that we matter somehow… and when we see that we do matter… I think that is reward enough!

  2. Great post Alexander, but the drawing is confusing for me. Maybe I just misunderstood some, but please let me explain why I feel confused …

    If I am not mistaken, it is by Franklin-Covey that, away and toward motivation depends on personality – people tend to use one over another. The key word is motivation. I would not say that one is negative and other is positive.

    Toward – I really want to make this report, because I can present how good work I have done during last quarter. Away – I really want to make this report, because then I dont need to explain myself over and over. In my opinion, there is always a “because”. And this “because” can be toward something positive or away from something negative.

    I strongly agree with intrinsic & extrinsic part. By my (managerial :)) experience I can say that whenever the motivation is intrinsic, it works always.

  3. Timely post, Alexander – I was thinking about what motivates me today. Of all the incentive programmes I’ve been part of during my career, NONE of them has ever done anything for me, to the point where I felt myself mentally withdraw from any employer even hinting at relying on these kind of tactics. I’ve had some pretty fantastic managers too, who were really encouraging and I felt they genuinely cared about my career, but that didn’t work for me either.

    Being self-employed really motivates me – not because of the tasks I’m doing or the goals I’m pursuing (quite modest, actually!), but because what drives me to go to work in the morning is the knowledge that I have control over my own day, and that covers *everything*, from what time I decide to arrive in the morning to just how far I am prepared to go to appease an irate client (flexible working hours in themselves just don’t cut it, I’m afraid!). Very few leaders actually trust those they are leading enough to really offer them this sense of control – such a small thing, but makes a world of difference.

    It’s important to me that my dedication and expertise counts, not butt-in-seat time (as Ricardo Semco calls it in The 7 Day Weekend)!

  4. Agree with Peter that we all want to get the feeling that we matter somehow.

    It is the leaders role to make people feel that they matter. And at the same expand their horizon so that they feel they are learning by achieving something they thought they were unable to achieve. Happiness and motivation are closely related and you are happier if you overcome obstacles.

    Your question was what motivates me. Creating such an environment for people to work in is what brings me to work everyday.

  5. I agree with your posting, but there is a question that is still nagging: What is a manager to do? How does he or she “get someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”?

    I have some thoughts, but maybe this should be a follow-up blog entry?


  6. @Terry, my experience this has a lot to do with finding and highlighting elements of the assignment that make it interesting for somebody.. Before you can present a task in a way that makes somebody say I want to do this, you need to understand what drives this person.

  7. i dunno if its as simple as “i write the report because i want to write the report”! – sometimes writing the report is not motivation in itself but a means to an end – a means to achieving a grander vision? and so we do it because it “needs to get done”???

    that’s where descipline comes in i think…

  8. I am motivated when I see my team functioning well and people having a good time at work. When I see people enjoying eachother in the course of their work, it gives me a high. I’m not always sure how to contribute to this other than to play to people’s strengths and get their input on tasks, goals and direction.

  9. A leader should understand his duties clearly before guiding his team. It is not only his duty to delegate responsibilities to his subordinates. But should keep track of all the happenings and procedures. He should motivate his team members to produce effective results.

    Motivation should not only be based on monetary benefits, but it is the responsibility of the leader to explain the necessity of the work to be done. And the importance of the employees….

  10. A few thoughts:

    For me, I have a lot of personal enjoyment in most of what I do for work, or at least *enough* of it to get over the hump of the boring bits. Additionally, when I hear that somebody finds part of my work attractive, or better yet, useful, that’s a big boost.

    I think having “enough” intrinsic motivation is key. Enough to see the big picture to get thru/put up with the individual tasks for which there isn’t any intrinsic motivation otherwise.

    A manager who can help connect the dots between individual tasks, or who can find a way to rearrange those tasks among a group with different motivations, that’s the manager who is going to be successful. (I have a specific person who I used to work for in mind.)

  11. I’ll shamelessly steal from “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job” as it puts into theory what Sarah D said in a comment above:

    Anonymity — if you feel as though no one knows you at work, you will not be motivated to do the work. A manager can help here by taking an interest in their employee as a person and not as a widget producing goods.

    Irrelevance — if you cannot connect your work to a larger goal, then you will not be motivated to do the work. A manager can help here by relating how the work being done makes a difference to a company, a department, or even just the manager.

    Immeasurement (author of the book says it’s not a word yet…) — if you cannot independently measure your work you will not know whether or not you are doing well in your position. Having a manager tell you that you are doing well or not is not it. Think of it as having independent measures of how well you are doing so you can judge your work yourself. Managers here can help by developing good measurements that will help an employee know how they are doing today on the job.

    Personally, I think, at best, a manager can provide the framework for good work, but managers can’t motivate another person per se. But, the framework is important, because without it, a person can be self-motivated and not do the work well because of the three categories above.

  12. Scot has started to answer my nagging question, What is a manager to do?

    These three points are very good, very do-able:

    – notice what people are doing

    – connect what people are doing to what the company is doing/where the company is going

    – develop and use good measures

    Any others?


  13. Very good post. Unfortunately, hierarchy and absentee ownership often lead to the progressive substitution of extrinsic for intrinsic motivation. A capitalist enterprise can’t give the worker the full value-added he creates–after all, what would be the point of hiring him if you couldn’t appropriate part of his labor? And since he’s accepting tasks from someone else and carrying out a work process designed by someone else, he’s not really organizing his own work, either. So it’s left to administrative incentives, especially penalties, to motivate him. As one of Ursula LeGuin’s characters said of military chains of command in The Dispossessed, hierarchy is the most rational way to get people to do what they have no rational interest in doing.

    The reference to “cheap corporate tchotchkies” especially rings a bell with me. My employer, dismayed by the dismal response on the employee satisfaction survey (the main causes were dangerous understaffing and horrible work loads), came up with the bright idea of 1) revising the mission statement and 2) PRIDE Rewards.

    The latter was a system of bonus points to reward “extraordinary” job performance, with reward stickers redeemable for cheap, shitty trinkets. The stickers are only good toward prizes offered through HR. The cheapest prize is a shitty coffee mug for 10 stickers. We were all issued a card with one sticker on it when the policy was announced. Mine immediately went in the trash with the contempt it deserved; I was sorely tempted to wipe my ass on it and mail it to HR. A couple of people on my floor earned stickers at the outset of the program: one of them went to a guy who saved a patient’s life with the Heimlich maneuver. We all remarked at the time what an insult it was to “reward” him with 1/10 of a mug. Everyone was constantly joking about the stickers: “Everything’s still shitty, but those stickers make it all worthwhile. Just think–all I have to do is save ten lives, and I can have a crappy little coffee mug of my very own!” The reward sticker program passed into well-deserved oblivion not long after. The HR types and senior administrators who came up with it never got a clue, but the ward supervisors have a better feel for just how insulting and politically tone-deaf such bullshit is, and I think they quietly let it die on their own.

  14. Great post, and right on! I am constantly getting the question, “How can I motivate my employees?” My reply – You can’t. People are self-motivated. You can de-motivate them, but you can’t motivate them. So, what’s a manager to do? Pay better attention in your hiring process. Look for what motivates your employees and make sure it is aligned with the mission and values of your organization. As my friend, Joan Brannick ( would say – You want to hire people who not only CAN do the job, but those who WANT to do the job in the way you need them to do it.

    One manager I know asks all his candidates what their personal mission statement is. If they don’t have one, he asks them to come up with one. If it’s not in line with the mission of the company, he suggests that perhaps this is not the best fit.

    Once you’ve hired someone, you can tap into what motivates them (money, bonuses, responsibilities, challenge, education, promotion, flexibility……) to keep them motivated and focused on the goals of the organization as it applies to their job.

    If managers approach hiring and leading in a “business as usual” way, then that’s what they’ll continue to get – “business as usual.” Do things differently and you’ll get different results.

    Once again, great post!

  15. i’m seeing a lot of “you can’t motivate employees in something they don’t want to be motivated in”! i’m starting to see that as a rather _weak_ response!

    * please don’t tell school teachers that they should just “give up” if the kid does not initially show self motivation!

    * please do tell the army that they should stop torture, as that can “motivate” people into confessions (in most cases, confessions to stuff they have not even done!!!)

    the question might be… are *we* motivated enough to try to motivate someone else about the same thing…? i’m not saying its always possible… but the tone of most of the comments is of people “giving up” even before trying!

    please lets not go so far down the sensitive new age happy goodie feelie path that we forgot that much is achieved through hard work and discipline… surely people can see that the dalai lama is a happy man… surely his discipline has quite a bit to do with it… the new age happy feelie thing is great and has a really important place in life… but that’s not all life is about… get off your back sides and work at it man! (and woman!).

  16. Geronimo, you’re right on about the money thing.

    It’s funny how the bosses think we’re so stupid something like Fish! Philosophy is all they need to “motivate” us to put out, but CEOs are so hard to motivate that there’s an entire body of corporate governance literature about how it’s necessary to give them tens of millions of $$ in salaries, bonuses and stock options just to keep them from taking a suitcase full of $100 bills and buying a one-way ticket to Bermuda.

    At the hospital where i work, they actually celebrated National Hospital Week by giving us a little booklet of inspirational quotes about how fulfilling it was to help others for the sheer sake of giving, without expecting any rewards. It included a Hindu proverb about how the rainclouds gave without expecting any repayment.

    I’m surprised it wasn’t followed immediately by a disclaimer: “You DO understand all this raincloud stuff and ‘giving our time just for the sheer joy of it’ crap only applies to you, right? We NEED our bonuses and million-dollar salaries. You: rainclouds. We: greedy corporate bastards.”

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