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Matching Motivations

One of the most widely know axioms around motivation is “you cannot motivate people, they motivate themselves”. Most of the times that I have heard that spoken its been followed with a shrug of the shoulders as if to say, “So what can you do?”.

I came upon this once when working with a small business that provided professional services to their clients. Most of the work was delivered on a consulting basis and that generally meant they were paid by the hour. The GM of the business was keenly aware that the business existed around the simple maths that the salary out-goings couldn’t exceed the billable hours. Like most consultancies they recognised that there were non billable situations where the team was working on the business itself or in pitches to get new work. The team completed time-sheets on a weekly basis, allocating their working hours to specific projects or to non-billable time.

I noticed that the GM was routinely frustrated at time-sheet time and it was never a good time to talk to them. One day I asked about that to see what was going on. The GM told me that one member of the team was always late with their time-sheet, made lots of excuses for not doing it and when the time-sheet arrived the non-billable hours was always excessive. The GM knew that this person performed well with clients and built good relationships and really worked hard for the clients whose portfolios she maintained. At the end of the download the GM said, “She doesn’t seem motivated to get what this business is about, she might have to go!”.

So how can that happen? A capable individual that should be an asset to the business and a boss who has begun to think they aren’t motivated and thinking of letting them go! Seems a waste doesn’t it, but how often have you been in that situation? I’ve met it many times.

I volunteered to have a chat with the employee about her job and how she was finding it. What I found was a highly committed woman, who loved her work and loved her clients. She really liked helping them and doing things for them. No lack of motivation at all. But she was beginning to sense an issue with the boss and that was making her wonder if she “was working in the right place” So not only did we have a boss thinking about cutting an employee loose, but the employee was thinking of going. It was just a matter of time to see who acted first. Looked like a self fulfilling prophesy about to come true! In either case reputations would be damaged in the marketplace, and neither was going to enjoy the experience.

I sensed that I was facing a motivational disconnect. I was pretty sure that neither were talking to each other and that it was all being built up their heads as the only conversation was with their self-talk. I asked if I could facilitate a discussion between them and as I wanted them to get a better understanding of themselves as well as each other I used a simple tool that I use in our “your attitude is showing” workshop to give a platform for that discussion. Without it in the middle I would have an “he-said, she said” type conversation.

Sure enough the employee was focused on ‘making the world a better place for other people’ (social) and not that interested in money (utilitarian). In fact when I talked through the information with her so that she understood herself better and why the boss was having difficulty she admitted that she had real difficulty ‘charging’ hours to her clients as it ‘seemed wrong’ to do so when all she was doing was ‘helping them’. What we had was a highly utilitarian motivation (the boss) facing a social motivation (the employee).

She wasn’t ‘not motivated’ just motivated differently. Once the boss understood this the solution became easy. The boss changed her time-sheet so that it recorded hours helping clients and hours helping the boss and made no mention of money, rates, charge-outs and all the other necessary things that the business needed to make money. The boss left that part to her accounts team.

Why did the boss manage the outcome that way? Why didn’t the boss explain to the employee why she had to do it the way the company wanted? The boss understood that she couldn’t motivate the employee but she could provide the environment for the employee to motivate herself. That is the job of a leader after all.

So if you find yourself thinking that someone isn’t motivated and yet they seem to have the capability then it might be that you are not matching your requests to their motivation.


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