The Fallacy of Motivation

  • Many new managers see their role as the motivator of their team.

    If only they can find ways to motivate their team, they’ll deliver great results, they believe.

    But it’s an approach that can go horribly wrong …

    When I was an inexperienced manager, my company faced a crisis caused by the failings of a new accounting system. It was a chaotic situation and we faced months of stress, dealing with angry clients and trying to clean up the mess.

    Our chief accountant, who reported to me, was struggling. She was talented, enthusiastic and recently promoted to the role. She said she was struggling to cope with the daily strain of leading her team and finding solutions for them.

    I saw my job was to motivate her, to help her overcome her doubts.

    Every day, she would tell me she couldn’t handle the situation.

    Every day, I would reassure her that she could. I focussed on the positives, trying to convince her she would come through this set of challenges. Every day, she would appear to be re-assured by my pep talk.

    One day, she didn’t turn up for work. Her doctor had told her to remove herself from the stress that was wrecking her health.

    For the first time I realised I’d put her in that position – the worst thing I could have done was keep telling her she could cope when it was now obvious she couldn’t. My efforts to motivate her had done nothing to help; in fact, they only made things worse.

    When reality dawned, I went round to see her and we agreed she should leave her job. I apologised for not having listened to her when she needed my support. She said she felt better already, knowing she was back in control of her life. Her boyfriend shook my hand and said leaving her job was the best thing that could have happened.

    It was a painful lesson for me but it taught me that it was not my job to motivate anyone.

    Yes, I could help people to find reasons to motivate themselves but that’s something entirely different.

    I could create an environment where people felt motivated. I could provide support and encouragement.

    But people need to find their own reasons to succeed, not be talked into mine or those of other short-sighted managers.