Have you at times wondered if there is such a thing as an unmotivated person? Most people haven’t thought about what motivates them. They reach a burnout level and don’t understand why.

Only after understanding the different types of motivation do they gain insight into how to motivate themselves as well as setting the stage to motivate others.


You will find when looking into what makes people “tick” it is well worth your time to gain a little insight and think about how you could increase your leadership skills when motivating others.

People Do Things for Two Reasons

A really great tip to remember is people in general do things for one of two reasons:

  • To avoid loss (fear motivation)
  • To gain benefit (incentive motivation)

While one person is motivated to act by his desire to avoid a particular consequence (a loss), another’s motivation comes from his drive to work toward some sort of goal (a benefit). These two schools of thought are referred to as external motivation based on fear and incentive, and they have been around for quite a long time.

Now, take a minute and think about which of these best describes you. Do you act more on the basis of avoiding a potential loss? Or, is what drives you the benefit you will gain when you complete a task?

It’s possible for the answer to be both, and that’s one thing you need to keep in mind while trying to motivate other people: Some will respond better to fear and others to incentive. Some will respond to a mixture of the two.

Jack is Fear Motivated

Let’s take Jack as an example. Jack is motivated by fear. He doesn’t know it, but he is. Here’s why. Jack is dead-set on proving everyone else wrong. If the others are saying that he cannot do the task, he will fail or not follow through.

Jack’s life runs on fear and he is motivated and gets things done when he is about to get into trouble. He acts on a potential loss. When the alarm clock rings in the morning, Jack asks himself, “What will happen if I don’t show up for work today?” His desire is to avoid the consequence of not going to work.


Fear is the most common type of motivation used in the workplace. Threats, looming consequences, and the possibility of job loss are tools of this method and provide motivation for employees to keep doing their jobs.

Though this may not be thought of as a form of motivation, it is one that works if the person to be motivated thrives on avoiding a potential loss.

If you want to understand how it works, ask yourself, “Why do people drive the speed limit? Why do people pay their taxes?” Yes, to avoid a consequence.

Using Fear Motivation Correctly

Some managers are sometimes guilty of abusing this fear of loss motivation. They are unable to discern who will respond to it best. They instead try to instill fear in all of the employees across the board. Of course, this de-motivates those that are not motivated by fear.

Great leaders, on the other hand, are able to figure out which of their team members respond well to this type of motivation and use it as a method to help them work to their fullest potential. They do this in a productive manner, instead of threatening jobs or demeaning the team members.

Here is an example of using fear as a motivator. To prompt people toward action, use fear-of-loss statements such as, “I’m not sure you can handle it” and “This may not be for you,” knowing that employees who respond best to fear will be motivated by the desire to prove you wrong.

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See the difference? No threats. you are just communicating to them what they could potentially lose.

Incentive is a Motivator

People who are motivated by incentive approach things entirely differently. When their alarm rings in the morning, they’re already thinking about how they will be rewarded for showing up at work. This doesn’t mean this type is easier to motivate as they do not respond to situations that involve a loss.


They are motivated by leaders that understand the value of providing motivation on a daily basis by talking about:

  • Goals and achievements
  • Gains for completing a task
  • Dreams and visions
  • Next steps to their career path

Some managers try to interact with incentive-driven team members in this way, but often take the topic to extremes. They may say things such as, “You’ll get a promotion,” “You’ll get a raise” or “Perhaps we might look at a new job for you down the road” on a regular basis—which is too often. Such seemingly motivational statements are of limited appeal as it comes across as phony with an unrealistic approach.


Here’s an example of how to use incentive motivation effectively. Use positive statements with employees who derive the most from benefit-centered motivation, but frame them in such a way as to make them attainable. For example, “Here’s what we’ll gain,” “This is where we’re heading” and “If we accomplish this, we’ll get new clients, more business, or be viewed as experts.”

Internal Motivation

When I lead sessions on motivation, almost all people in the audience state that they are internally motivated. They can motivate themselves to do a good job without incentives or fear.

The problem is that these people are not as common as the loss and benefit people, and most people in our training who claim to be internally motivated discover they really aren’t.

Employees tend to think that if they’re not internally motivated, others will think there’s something wrong with them. Many people are truly internally motivated and operate as such, but many more are simply trying to pass themselves off as a self-starter, simply because they think it’s the image they’re supposed to project.

Everyone is internally motivated to some extent about something in life. Unfortunately, this condition is very selective.

You only have to look so far as your teenage sons or daughters to understand this. Ask them to mow the lawn or clean their room and they’ll be too tired. But as soon as a friend calls with an invitation to go out, they’re suddenly full of energy. They were internally motivated by something there, but it certainly wasn’t the household chores.

When it comes to the workplace, internally motivated team members are the ones who know how to make their motives bigger than their actions.

They are very clear about their active needs and work at self-motivation in contrast to someone motivating them.

Self-starters align their needs with what they do for a living so that there’s a level of connection between “what makes them tick” and their job.

How Can You Motivate?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and founder of the About Leaders community and She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Online course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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