Why The Way We Motivate People–And Ourselves–Matters

Reaching for the easy motivational rewards, instead of digging deep for sustainable ones, makes for an unstable culture.

Why The Way We Motivate People–And Ourselves–Matters
[Photo: Flickr user Pittaya Sroilong]

Look at the next meeting on your calendar. Are you motivated to attend it? This might sound like a silly question, but I ask it to make this point: asking if you are motivated raises more questions than answers. What criteria do you use to determine if you are motivated? If I asked you to decide if a colleague of yours is motivated to attend that same meeting, how would you reach your conclusion? How do you evaluate another person’s motivation? What does motivation even mean?


For many years, my go-to definition of motivation was simply “the energy to act.” It turns out my definition has the same fatal flaw as the other 102 definitions you can find for motivation. Thinking of motivation as having the energy or impetus to act fails to convey the essential nature of human motivation. It does nothing to help you understand the reasons behind the action.

Back to my opening question: Are you motivated to attend your next meeting? This is simply the wrong question. Your answer is limited to a yes-no or a-little–a-lot response rather than the quality of motivation being experienced.

What if I asked instead, “Why are you motivated to attend your meeting?” Asking why leads to a spectrum of motivation possibilities that generate different qualities of energy.

Consider which of the six outlooks, listed below, best describes your experience before, during, and after your meeting. These outlooks are not a continuum. You can be at any outlook at any time and pop up in another one at any time. In the meeting example, you may have experienced one or all of these outlooks at one point or another:

Disinterested motivational outlook (suboptimal): You simply could not find any value in the meeting; it felt like a waste of time, adding to your sense of feeling overwhelmed.


External motivational outlook (suboptimal): The meeting provided an opportunity for you to exert your position or power; it enabled you to take advantage of a promise for more money or an enhanced status or image in the eyes of others.

Imposed motivational outlook (suboptimal): You felt pressured because everyone else was attending and expected the same from you; you were avoiding feelings of guilt, shame, or fear from not participating.

Aligned motivational outlook (optimal): You were able to link the meeting to a significant value, such as learning–what you might learn or what others might learn from you.

Integrated motivational outlook (optimal): You were able to link the meeting to a life or work purpose, such as giving voice to an important issue in the meeting.

Inherent motivational outlook (optimal): You simply enjoy meetings and thought it would be fun.


You may have noticed that three of the outlooks are labeled as suboptimal–disinterested, external, and imposed. These outlooks are considered motivational junk food, reflecting low-quality motivation. Three of the outlooks are labeled as optimal–aligned, integrated, and inherent. These outlooks are considered motivational health food, reflecting high-quality motivation.

It is important to appreciate the different effects suboptimal and optimal motivational outlooks have on people’s well-being, short-term productivity, and long- term performance.

The Problem With Motivational Junk Food

You buy dinner for your family at the local drive-through–burgers, fries, and shakes–with the intention of eating it at home together. The aroma of those fries is intoxicating. You simply cannot help yourself–you eat one. By the time you get home, the bag of French fries is empty.

Consider the effect junk food has on our physical and mental energy. How do we feel after downing the package of French fries? Guilty or remorseful? Even if we feel grateful and satisfied, what happens to our physical energy? It spikes dramatically and falls just as dramatically. How nourished are our bodies? A steady diet of junk food simply isn’t good for us. Even if we can justify an occasional splurge, we are wise to understand our alternative choices.

Parents, teachers, and managers promise more money, award prizes for contests, offer rewards, threaten punishment, apply pressure, and use guilt, shame, or emotional blackmail to encourage specific behaviors from children, students, and employees. When people give in to one of these tactics, they end up with a suboptimal motivational outlook–disinterested, external, or imposed. But, those rewards and punishments (carrots and sticks) are as hard to resist as those French fries–and just as risky.


Rewards and pressure may help people initiate new behaviors and produce results, but they fail miserably in helping people maintain their progress or sustain results.

Try Motivational Health Food

Kacey is perennially a top salesperson in her organization. When her company announced a contest to award top sellers with a weeklong spa trip, she felt offended. “Do they think I do what I do so I can win a week at a spa? Maybe it sounds corny, but I work hard because I love what I do. I get great satisfaction by solving my clients’ problems and seeing the difference it makes. If my company wants to connect with me and show appreciation–that’s different. Obviously, that isn’t the case. If they knew me, they would understand that as a single mother, a spa week away is not a reward but an imposition.”

People with high-quality motivation, such as Kacey, may accept external rewards when offered, but this is clearly not the reason for their efforts. The reasons the Kaceys of the world do what they do are more profound and provide more satisfaction than external rewards can deliver.

There are significant implications for the organization when people experience high-quality motivation. They achieve above-standard results; demonstrate enhanced creativity, collaboration, and productivity; are more likely to repeat their peak performance; and enjoy greater physical and mental health.

Junk Food Or Health Food–You Choose

The three suboptimal motivational outlooks–disinterested, external, and imposed–are the junk foods of motivation. Their tangible or intangible rewards can be enticing in the moment, but they do not lead to flourishing. Far from it. People with a suboptimal motivational outlook are less likely to have the energy it takes to achieve their goals. But even if they do, they are not likely to experience the positive energy, vitality, or sense of well-being required to sustain their performance over time.


The three optimal motivational outlooks–aligned, integrated, and inherent–are the health foods of motivation. They may require more thought and preparation, but they generate high-quality energy, vitality, and positive well- being that leads to sustainable results. If you want to create a work culture that thrives, wean yourself and your people off motivational junk food and offer them healthy alternatives.

This article is excerpted from Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, by Susan Fowler with the permission of Berrett-Koheler Publishers 2014.

Susan Fowler is senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, and author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, selected by Soundview Executive Summaries as one of the top 30 business books of 2014.