Motivation cannot be mandated!

Attribution Press/used with permission
Source: Attribution Press/used with permission

I often bring a magic wand to my face-to-face seminars and university classes. The audience usually emits a loud chuckle when I ask for a volunteer and proceed to wave my magic wand over their head and declare them “motivated.” While this approach is conceivably absurd, many motivation books and speakers imply that by simply following the author’s guidance you will instantly become motivated. Authors of these books declare their methods are proven: when one explicitly follows their formula, intense drive and immediate success will result…leading to massive wealth.

These dubious claims are usually substantiated by describing a record of personal achievement from a highly charismatic and knowledgeable individual who has succeeded in one field and believes their experience is sufficient to motivate people in diverse disciplines, careers, and life situations. Upon examining these claims in detail, we usually find little knowledge of actual motivational science or any replicable evidence to support the author’s suggestions. Most of the “secrets” revolve around speaking, thinking, and acting like the author: “do as I do and you too will succeed” is essentially their mantra and motivational wisdom. Unfortunately, these authors fail to realize that motivation cannot be mandated, regardless whether using a magic wand or just words in a book or speech.

There are several problems with motivation bequeathed by others. First, the “expert” is operating under the premise that a strategy will work for you because it worked for them. Many motivational prognosticators are highly successful in their own careers, but rely almost exclusively on private, untestable approaches that may not necessarily apply to others in similar situations. Unless the approach has undergone rigorous scientific testing with controlled conditions, there is no accurate way to attest to the superiority or even the efficacy of their methods. If you see or hear any author or speaker suggest their methods are “proven” - run the other way.

Their wisdom cannot be debunked

lisaleo/www.morguefile.com used with permission
Source: lisaleo/www.morguefile.com used with permission

Second, any reputable researcher defends the notion that nothing is ever considered absolute proof because contradictory evidence can falsify any theory. Neither the popularity of ideas nor the source of the rhetoric determines merit. If you recall from high school history and science, for centuries many people believed the earth was flat and slavery was an appropriate way to staff a growing colonial business. In the 1800’s medical illnesses were inappropriately diagnosed by examining the shape of the patient’s skull.

These prevailing theories and strategies of the time were debunked when undiscovered evidence was subsequently realized. Ironically, when a motivational huckster’s “proven formula” fails to work, the user is often blamed for not following the prescriptive formula or chastised because they are a “non-believer.” Third, as readers of my forthcoming book Hack Your Motivation will learn, diagnosing and mediating motivational challenges cannot be achieved through generalizations. Motivation is constantly in flux based on the task at hand, the performer’s beliefs, and the venue conditions. Beyond that, motives rapidly evolve owing to task progress or failure. In other words, motivational solutions will change based on the person and problem.

Unfortunately, many overzealous and uninformed leaders in classrooms, homes, and workplaces adopt methods designed to accomplish the same goals as the misinformed motivation experts who tout their claims in TED Talks, books, and late-night infomercials. Often relying on authority, these well-intentioned leaders consider themselves “coaches.” They point out motivational deficiencies, provide support and encouragement, and describe idealistic behaviors implying absolutely anyone can magically transform performance.  Many people succumb to these persuasive approaches because the author/speaker makes them feel good about themselves and is offering a simple solution. Their approach is not much different than my magic wand during presentations and a HUGE leadership error. 

Attribution Press/used with permission
Source: Attribution Press/used with permission

Mandating motivation is one of the seven most worst mistakes leaders make in their attempt to motivate a workforce. Personal motivation cannot be authorized by others, unless the person who is trying to motivate you has the same unique experiences, beliefs, and opportunities as you---a logistical and scientific impossibility. Further, people who follow a prescriptive formula from others lose motivational power and thinking independence. These types of strategies seem right on face value but often wind up demotivating individuals because promised results often do not follow, leading to frustration and negative self-views, feelings that often promote greater reliance on the "expert" in order to feel better.  

Despite the limitations of a universal approach to motivating others, individuals can enhance professional success by observing and modeling the behavior of skilled leaders. First, you must realize that behaviors evaluated as appropriate and desirable in one work setting may not apply universally. Thus, you should be sure you model organizationally appropriate behaviors. Second, regardless of company culture, individual success requires a willingness to accept constructive criticism. Perceive feedback not as a sign of weakness or a judgmental evaluation, rather as opportunity to learn and expedite personal growth.

Solidifying your future in an organization takes work and effort. Part of the challenge is not allowing yourself to fall into the trap of automatically exhibiting comfortable and habitual patterns of behavior. This means resisting the urge to become defensive when someone offers honest feedback. Finally, if you are the coach, be sure your message to constituents and colleagues is clear and specific, with care taken to avoid interpretation for hidden meanings. The individual must perceive your message as relevant and you, the leader, as a credible and trustworthy source or the probability of serious consideration or even temporary adoption of suggestions will be extremely limited.

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This blog post is based on Dr. Hoffman's new book, Motivational Murder: The Seven Mistakes Worst Mistakes Leaders Make, available now. Psychology Today readers can get a completely free copy for a limited time. For daily updates on motivation, learning, and performance, follow him on Twitter @ifoundmo

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