3 Ways to Motivate the Un-Motivated


Motivating another person is a challenge for every parent, manager, teacher, coach or leader. Where do you go when your considered request is met with apathy? Or worse?

How do you motivate the un-motivated?

Here's a familiar scene.

Dad asks his six year old son, who's happily playing with toys in his bedroom, to put his shoes on and get ready for school. Mr 6 appears not to hear the request and keeps playing. So Dad asks again - and again. 

'Why won't this kid do what I ask?' he mutters, with an edge to his voice.

At the fourth request our six-year old responds with a clear and forthright, 'No!' 

By this stage Dad has passed frustrated and is entering the anger zone. 'Put your shoes on now and get to the car or I'm throwing these toys in the garbage!'

That gets Mr 6's attention.  He bursts into tears.

Dad's raised voice has frightened him and all he has heard is, 'I'm throwing these toys in the garbage.' He's distraught and Dad has had enough. Meanwhile the shoes lie untouched on the bedroom floor.

The mistake we make

The mistake we make when trying to motivate the un-motivated is not thinking about who owns the motivation.

Mr 6 is not interested in putting his shoes on and going to school. He's motivated to stay exactly where he is and to keep playing. Dad is the one motivated to get our boy to school and he makes the mistake of thinking that simply by asking, his motivation will transfer to his son.

Let's look at why this doesn't work...

Our dad, in this scenario, has context for his motivation. It's his day off and he's looking forward to having a coffee and reading in the sun at his favourite cafe. This is a highlight of his week and he doesn't want to miss a moment. He's intrinsically motivated to get the kids to school so that he can enjoy it.

He also feels a responsibility to ensure that his children make it to school on time. This is known as identified motivation - doing something because we believe it's the right thing to do, even if it's not particularly enjoyable. Our beliefs and values are a strong motivating force. They drive our behaviour because they are important to us.

Meanwhile Mr 6 has no awareness of Dad's drivers and motivation and frankly, no interest. He loves to play and he wants to keep doing it. He's intrinsically motivated to stay right where he is. 

This poses a problem. We have two forces operating in opposition and without someone changing course we're heading for a battle.

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What will drive our pint-sized protagonist to comply with Dad's request?

He needs to own the problem in the same way Dad does. There has to be a reason for putting his shoes on that's meaningful to him. This will build his motivation to act.

Dad could try threats and bribery to motivate Mr 6. This is a common go-to strategy, particularly for parents but often for manager too. 

'If you don't put your shoes on right now there will be no screen time for a week!' is not a far stretch from, 'If we don't get this project complete by Friday it's not going to reflect well on you.' 

These threats, or external motivation, can work in the short term if the other party cares about the 'punishment,' but it isn't enough to create long term change. Dad will be having the same conversation with Mr 6 tomorrow and while the project may be complete by Friday your staff member is not lining up to take on additional responsibilities. In fact she's cursing you behind your back, her morale is low and she is building emotional resistance to your next request.

A more effective approach is to help the other person feel that they have an important and meaningful part to play in the scenario. That they have autonomy.

Dad needs to find a way to help Mr 6 put his shoes on and get ready for school of his own volition; to believe that the choice is his and that he's not doing it because someone else told him to. Our manager needs to put himself in the position of his team member and find a way to reframe the deadline in a way that is meaningful to her so that she is inwardly driven to act.

So how do they do it?

There are three ways to create autonomy and motivate the un-motivated.

1. Take the other person's perspective. This is an exercise in empathy and imagination. If Dad imagines what it's like to be a six year old happily playing with his toys and not a harried father worried about missing out on his coffee, he can begin to explore and understand what might motivate Mr 6 to take action. This will soften his approach and reduce the likelihood of a 'battle' mindset.

2. Give the other person a choice in the situation. Mr 6 does not have a choice about whether to wear shoes or not - that's not negotiable - but there may be other choices about when and how he puts his shoes on that helps him to internalise the goal and make him feel that it is his own. 

Dad: 'I know you're having fun with your toys and you don't want to stop but it's important that we leave now so that you have time to play with your friends before the school bell goes.  Do you want to put your shoes on by yourself or would you like me to help you?' 

Our manager can talk to his team member about the options for getting the tasks complete by the deadline. Exploring options helps us to own the situation and increases motivation and action.

3. Provide a meaningful explanation. The human mind seeks meaning. We're meaning making machines. If our manager provides no context for his request, our team member will make up her own mind about his motivation and it's unlikely to be favourable. 

'He's loading me up with this work so that he can sit in his office and relax,' might be her explanation if there is no obvious alternative.

Providing context for your requests helps the other person understand the 'why' and not just the 'what.' This is more engaging and more motivating.

Manager: 'I realise that getting these tasks done by the deadline will require extra effort but our customer is relying on us to get this done by 3pm so that they have time to set up for the event tomorrow. We'll have a happy customer and that will make our lives easier. Where do you think we should start?'

Motivating effectively is about negotiation, not control and command. It takes time, patience and appreciation of the other person's position. This may feel frustrating, even unreasonable at times, but developing the skill leads not only to better relationships but a happier home or workplace and an opportunity for everyone to grow, flourish and thrive.


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