What is Motivation and How Does it Work?

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Are there people on your team whom you haven’t been able to reach? You don’t know why, but they are adversely affecting productivity. A clear solution to this issue has not yet presented itself to you.

You’re certain you don’t have a communication skills issue between the people in question, and you’ve resolved any conflict or misunderstandings there may have been, but they’re still not responding.

Consider Motivation

Before you chalk the problem up to “these people are just not getting it”, consider their motivation. Most of us expect our coworkers to be as motivated as we are. That’s rarely the rule. All people are motivated differently and find different reasons to work toward success.

If you want members of your team to consistently do what you ask of them, you need to understand what motivates each one. And it has to be more than just a desire to please you.

Motivation is the perfect blend of a team member’s drive and the actions they perform. If the former outweighs the latter, you have a motivated individual.

On the other hand, if the actions needed are greater than the drive, you have an unmotivated individual, one who works on the required tasks but seems disinterested or apathetic toward them.

Motives Need to Outweigh Actions

In one of our leadership development programs, we ask participants to raise their right hands. Then we ask, “Why did you do that? “Most of the responses are along the lines of, “Because you told us to.”

Next, we tell everyone to get up, put their chairs on their backs and run around the building five times. Needless to say, this command is met with some confused looks, even some laughter. Why is this? Why are most people unwilling to perform more difficult tasks on demand?

The reason is that raising a hand is a small action with no motive other than pleasing the person who requests that you do it. Our leadership participants raised their hands because it required little effort. But don’t expect people to do what you ask just because you ask them to do it.

Your employees’ motivation to perform requested tasks depends upon the level of motivation involved. The clearer the motive, the more quickly they will complete the action. The larger the action you want them to perform, the clearer the motive must be.

When it comes to complex or difficult tasks, the motives need to outweigh the action required to complete the task.


Here’s an Example

Another question we ask in our leadership program is, “If someone asks you to run around the building 5 times for $2,000, would you do it?” This isn’t even demanding on our part, yet whenever we say it, several people always get up from their chairs as if they’re going to run toward the door!

What would motivate someone to perform this higher-level action, one that requires much more effort on their part? Obviously, it’s the larger payoff.

Far from just the innate satisfaction of feeling as though we’ve pleased the “teacher,” the promise of a good monetary reward is quite motivating to some. For some, they still wouldn’t run around a building five times.

The point of the exercise is: What are the specific reasons why people get out of bed in the morning to come to work? As an effective leader, this is the sort of distinction that you need to make. You must know what motivates each individual in order to influence their actions.

When you can look at each of your team members and figure out what would motivate each of them to do the best job they possibly can, and then offer that to them, they will work harder for you than you ever would have expected.

Old School Managers

Average managers don’t think about what makes team members tick. Instead, they fall into that trap of just expecting everyone else to do their jobs for the same reason they do: because they like to, have to, or because they’re afraid not to.

It’s not uncommon for a manager that lacks leadership skills to ask, “Why should I have to come up with a motive or a reason? I pay these people. They should just do what they’re supposed to.”

These types of managers mistakenly believe that because they tell team members to do something, they should do it. Although this may work for small tasks that require little investment on the team member’s part, when it comes to higher-level actions, people are not likely to comply.

Bottom Line

Are you expecting people to do what you need them to do just because you tell them to? My research indicates that out of six people:

  • 2 are internally motivated and will do what you ask no question
  • 4 need clearer motives from you to motivate them to act

How Do You Encourage Motivation?

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

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dr. Mary Kay on FacebookDr. Mary Kay on Twitter
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Success course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Brilliant Leadership Logo

Improve Yourself & Your Team

Get The Training Proven By 40,000+ Leaders