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3 motivation methods everyone uses (that are totally ineffective)

By now. you know that carrots (external rewards, power, status) and sticks (pressure, threats, fear) are not effective motivational tactics. But you might be surprised by how deeply ineffective these commonly used “traditional" methods of motivation are.

1. Verbal Cheerleading. "You can do it! Keep up the effort! Give me just one more!" Recent research finds that coaches who verbally encourage people in training sessions are significantly less effective than quiet coaches. The verbal encouragement generates external pressure, diminishing people's sense of autonomy (one of three basic psychological needs) and internal fortitude. Surprisingly, the research also found that verbal coaches were seen as self-serving, eroding relatedness (another of three psychological needs required for thriving).

Try setting a goal, providing pure feedback as necessary, and then, shut up. Whether coaching athletes or individuals in the workplace, your cheerleading may be undermining your good intentions—and their performance.

2. Competitions. Setting up a competitive situation to “motivate” people begs the question -- why are people competing? The reason a person is competing will determine the quality of their effort. Consider the difference between these two types of competitors:

  • “I’m a competitive person. Put me into any type of competition and I’m driven to succeed.” (I will do anything to win, say anything, and feel happy if I win and sad if I lose -- in fact, if I determine that I cannot win at some point I’ll stop trying because winning is everything.)

  • “I’m a competitive person. Put me into any type of competition and I thrive.” (Competition is an opportunity to gauge my performance, verify how much I’ve learned, understand how well I’m serving my clients, determine where I need to improve)

Evidence clearly shows that people’s creativity, innovation, and long-term productivity suffer when they are competing to beat someone else, gain power and status, win an award, or receive an incentive compared to competing as a means to learn, gain experience, and obtain insight into development needs. Most competitions generate external pressure that ultimately defeats people and undermines long-term skill building and sustained high performance.

3. Imposing values. The most well-intentioned and values-based leaders often do this: Through their own sense of purpose and passion, they unwittingly impose their values on others. For example,

  • “If you put effort into this goal, you will gain the rewards that come from being of service to others.”

It doesn't matter how noble your values may be, if you impose them on people you run the risk of eroding people’s sense of autonomy. Instead, have a values conversation to help people align goals to their own values, explore their own reasons for acting, and discover their own sense of meaning.

Imposing your values on others is especially detrimental when your motivation is self-serving. Take the example of the hard-driving sales manager hoping to inspire his new sales rep.

The manager takes the young man to the top of a hill overlooking a posh part of the city. “Look at that place,” says the manager, pointing to a magnificent property, “I bet the house is 6,000 square feet, plus the horse stable and tennis court.” He points to another home, “Can you imagine the party you could throw around that pool?”

Then, the manager puts his arm around the wide-eyed young rep’s shoulders and tells him, “Son, if you keep working as hard as you’re working, some day all this could be mine.”

When people sense -- or even wrongly interpret -- that your motivation is self-serving, they feel used and manipulated. How can you expect people to be motivated by high-quality values such as service, growth, learning, integrity, problem solving or corporate citizenship, when they perceive you are imposing your self-serving values such as power, status, or rewards?

Raise your hand if you still use any of these forms of motivation. Better yet, replace old-fashioned ideas with new practices based on the true nature of human motivation.

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest book, she explains "Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does:The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling "Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more resources, including a free Motivational Outlook Assessment with immediate results, visit Follow her on Twitter.

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