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Can you master your motivation?

Not every task is amazing. How you motivate yourself in those situations is critical.

5 min read


master motivation fowler

Do you love conducting performance reviews? Do you swoon over submitting expense reports? Are you enthralled with preparing budgets?

Face it, your leadership role demands some activities you will never love, swoon over or be enthralled to do. But you still need to master your motivation to do them. Imagine hating to conduct performance reviews, yet you’re supposed to be “motivating” a staff member to put energy into something they don’t like doing. Hypocritical, inauthentic, and ineffective are descriptions that come to mind.

Thankfully, motivation science provides an alternative. Applying what we know about the nature of human motivation, you can learn to generate the positive energy that helps you achieve your goals while elevating creativity, productivity, sustainable performance, and mental and physical wellbeing.

First, master your motivation mindset

  1. Admit that most of what you’ve done to “motivate people” hasn’t worked, so it’s probably not working for you either. More than likely, your opinions about motivation have developed because you’ve been held accountable for applying leadership competencies based on studies on animals from the 1940s such as B.F. Skinner’s detrimental carrots (incentives) and sticks (fear, punishment), McClelland’s misleading achievement motivation (based on power), or Maslow’s misinterpreted hierarchy of needs (never proven and potentially more harmful than helpful).
  2. Explore your beliefs about leadership. Have you ever challenged common beliefs such as: “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” or “The primary purpose of business is to make money”? If not, you could be thwarting the psychological needs required for you and your people to perform and thrive at work.
  3. Instead of asking yourself if you’re motivated, ask yourself why you’re motivated. When it comes to motivation, what matters most is not the quantity of motivation you have, but the quality. Consider this: not all motivation is created equal. The reasons for your motivation determine the quality of your motivation.

Motivation is the energy to act. When you have low physical energy, you can kickstart yourself by eating a candy bar or drinking a cup of coffee or caffeinated soft drink. You might benefit in the short run from the sugar spike and caffeine rush, but then what happens? Your blood sugar plummets, leaving you needing another energy fix. But when you eat a handful of almonds or a healthy breakfast, you not only generate energy, you create positive energy and vitality more conducive to innovation, productivity, sustainable high performance, and mental and physical well-being.

A similar phenomenon happens with your psychological energy that also influences your physical energy. Junk-food motivation, fueled by rewards, incentives, power, status, fear, or shame, is the psychological equivalent of sugar and caffeine. Research shows that even if you get that initial rush of psychic energy, it’s suboptimal — meaning the motivation you generated isn’t sustainable enough to attain your goals.

This low-quality motivation also detracts from your creativity and mindfulness. But optimal motivation is fueled by creating choice, connection, and competence—the three psychological nutrients required for the type of energy needed to achieve your goals and thrive.

Now, master your motivation skill set

  1. Create choice by asking yourself: What choices have I made and what choices can I still make?
  2. Create connection by asking yourself: How can I deepen connection through demonstrating genuine caring, aligning with my values and purpose, or contributing to the greater good?
  3. Create competence by asking yourself: How can I build competence by acknowledging my skills, developing expertise, and learning something new?

Imagine applying these questions to conducting performance reviews. This cartoon demonstrates six different types of motivation — each reflecting the quality of your choices, connection and competence. Through the skill of motivation, you can shift from…

  • disinterested motivation (because you can’t find value in conducting reviews)
  • external motivation (driven by tangible or intangible rewards)
  • imposed motivation (based on fear, pressure, or shame)


  • aligned motivation (recognizing that performance reviews help you fulfill meaningful values you have as a leader)
  • integrated motivation (because performance reviews support your self-identity as an effective leader)
  • inherent motivation (because you simply enjoy the whole performance review process).

Can you learn to master your motivation? Yes. If you first liberate yourself from outdated notions about motivation and embrace a new motivation mindset. Then, learn to master the motivation skillset to experience the optimal motivation required to achieve your goals and thrive.

But there’s more good news. When you master your motivation, you are more likely to find success facilitating your staff members’ motivation mindset and skillset. And, who knows? Performance reviews might prove to be one of your most potent leadership tools for developing people — not because you love, swoon over, or are enthralled with conducting them, but because you recognize their value in creating choice, connection, and competence for yourself and those you lead.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people and is on a mission to help others learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” due out in June, she helps individuals master their own motivation, achieve their goals and flourish as they succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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