Stop Trying to Motivate People—It Won’t Work

UPDATED: February 20, 2016
PUBLISHED: March 23, 2015

We all want to motivate someone. Parents struggle to motivate their kids. Wives try to motivate their husbands, and vice versa. And organizations attempt all the time to come up with something that will motivate their employees, from giving out company coffee mugs to bonuses.

But you can’t motivate another person.

Why? Because different people have different motivators. One person might be motivated most by the opportunity to contribute while a co-worker is motivated by the freedom to choose how to contribute.

What you can do, and what will bring lasting results, is figure out what already motivates a person and tap into that. But managers don’t often do this.

I once worked for a fancy resort and country club. Every time I would do something really well, my boss would give me a sleeve of very expensive golf balls. Guess what she forgot to ask me? “Do you play golf?”

Related: Do These 7 Things to Get (and Stay) Motivated

One time I approached her and told her the CEO had given me great feedback about a leadership development session I offered. She condescendingly said to me, “Oh, Anne, he says that to everyone. But here are some golf balls. Great job, kiddo.” I am motivated by feedback, recognition and appreciation. She assumed that what would motivate her would motivate me, but she was wrong. So she didn’t motivate me—she completely deflated me.

Sometimes supervisors try to motivate employees with perks—“carrots” like a gift card, paid time off, a great parking spot. These might initially work, but people will start wanting and feeling entitled to more. And to continue improving performance, bigger and better incentives become unnecessarily mandatory.

Negative motivators are a go-to, too—“sticks” like fear of failure, fear of no respect, fear of losing money. Some people are able to motivate others in the short term by using the stick of fear, but it never lasts… and it never produces the best results.

The problem with all these motivators is that they wear off. The carrot and the stick are the old ways of “motivating others.” And they are the ones managers, parents and other would-be motivators usually try first.

Helping someone find the inner motivation to do something is really about personal leadership and influence. The true question is not, “How can I motivate someone?” It’s, “How do I create a climate that taps into what already motivates this person?”

My former golf ball-giving boss might not have understood this, but I recently coached a senior-level executive at a Fortune 100 company on how to do it right. She had been struggling with her team’s performance. While they were meeting the bare minimum, they rarely strived to achieve more. I asked how she currently approached motivation. She said that she gave them gift cards to restaurants. What she didn’t understand was that eating great food was what motivated her, but it might not be the case for her team.

Related: Top of Mind: How Do You Find Motivation When You’re Not Feeling It?

Motivation happens one person at a time. So she began to invest time in building relationships with the people on her team and learned that while some craved opportunities for advancement, others sought paid time off and some just wanted more recognition for a job well done. When she took the time to identify what already motivated her staff, she was able to provide a climate that supported it.

It’s important to be aware of the most common motivators, too—ones that stick, that can spur people to work harder, take risks and change behaviors. People universally crave respect, peace of mind, success, recognition, financial stability, admiration and love.

Whatever situation you’re in, at work or at home, you’re more likely to get what you need and have win-win outcomes if you are able to understand both what motivates you and others. If you want to create an environment where people want to help you and do things for you, where they’re growing and improving, you have to find out what drives their behavior.

The bottom line is this: WIIFM, or What’s in it for me? And discovering this is the secret to motivation.

So how do you find out people’s WIIFM? Try these strategies:

1. Pay attention:

If you pay attention to what people talk about, what they are interested in and what they focus on, you can often get a sense of what naturally motivates them.

2. Ask:

It may seem fairly simple, but when was the last time you asked people what you could do to help them stay motivated?

3. Figure out what de-motivates someone and stop doing it:

It’s not rocket science. If you know someone hates to be nagged, talk with them about the way they would like to be approached when there are things to do. If you know that someone gets embarrassed easily, make a concerted effort not to put the person in uncomfortable situations.

Related: 7 Motivational Quotes to Help You Face Your Fears (Because Worry Never Fixes Anything) 

Anne Grady is an internationally recognized speaker and author. She shares humor, humility, refreshing honesty and practical strategies anyone can use to triumph over adversity and master change. With a master’s degree in organizational communication, Anne started her own company as speaker and consultant to top organizations despite challenges she outlines in her new TEDx talk. Her new book is Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience, and Triumph. She is also the author of 52 Strategies for Life, Love & Work. For more information, visit