Motivation, Choice, Prescriptions, and Medicine

Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Will I get to all of those? I doubt it since I'm way too prone to rambling.

I've long made a habit of observing those I believe to be good managers - the people I've most enjoyed working for. I tried to take as much of those observations, along with training and education, into the role of management with me when I went. Not long after I embarked on the management path I had an opportunity to chat with one of those former managers I admired and the topic turned to motivation - how does one go about motivating people.

Mr. Admired Manager said something that has stuck with me and that I've spent many hours pondering and trying to figure out if I fully believe or not. To date I've only arrived at being reasonably convinced that what he said was quite valuable. He said, "You can't motivate people. People motivate themselves. All you can do is try to make clear to them the choices available and, when possible, add an attractive choice to the list. The trick is recognizing the choices and understanding individuals well enough to make good guesses about which choice is most attractive to them. People motivate themselves to pursue the things they want. The rest is just 'please' and 'thank you'."

The reason I am not fully convinced that what Mr. AM told me is completely accurate is because people do not always seem to appreciate having choices, especially when the choices available are all "good" to varying degrees or all "bad" to varying degrees. Not wanting to choose among "bad" things is understandable. Nobody wants to take their medicine and the spoonful of sugar only helps it go down, it doesn't help us to love the medicine. The more perplexing oddity, however, is how choosing among "good" things can be perceived as painful or difficult. Put a kid in front of a candy counter where the selection does not include his clear and forever favorite candy and it rarely matters to him that he'll like whatever he picks, the choice is difficult and once made the second guessing and woulda-shoulda-coulda will begin.

Even more odd than the candy-picking malcontented kid is when this sort of thing is exhibited by people old enough to know better. For example, Choices Create Confusion. They wanted it, they got it, and now they're ticked off about it.


MeaninglessHotAir said...

As one who is struggling to be a "manager" without having a formal title or any power, I find your discussion fascinating. I had never quite thought of things in those terms. Thank you!

Knucklehead said...


Accountability without authority is a path guaranteed to make or break you as a manager ;) Good luck!

Rick Ballard said...


Unless he was speaking of motivating managers he was kidding. Good managers appreciate choice and people who wish to become managers appreciate choice. If you're lucky, that might be 5% of the 'people' that are employed. The rest see choice as a hazard rather than an opportunity. They may appreciate freedom within their sphere of responsibility but actual choice is threatening.

There is always the three outcome tautology to deal with regarding choice. Neutral is almost as bad as negative and positive is a one in three shot. Three yards and a cloud of dust made Woody Hayes a very successful coach. He understood choice pretty well.