All Articles Leadership Workforce It’s wise to discuss motivation. Asking what motivates someone isn’t

It’s wise to discuss motivation. Asking what motivates someone isn’t

The "what" behind employee motivation is often more revealing than why they aren't motivated, writes Susan Fowler.

6 min read



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Years ago, I had the privilege of attending a private dinner and sitting next to the CEO of a prestigious organization. Eventually, the conversation turned to what I did for a living — helping leaders and individuals apply complex motivation science in the workplace. I will never forget a statement uttered by the executive unequivocally, with total certainty and not an ounce of curiosity or questioning: You have to give salespeople incentives because they’re motivated by money.  

susan fowler

The CEO’s statement reflected a noticeable lack of understanding about motivation, but it also made me wonder if he’d ever had a meaningful discussion with a salesperson about their motivation. If he had, I’m willing to wager he made the common mistake that even the most well-intentioned leaders and coaches make by asking the unwise question, “What motivates you?” 

The coaching industry and AI, which has digested all the books and blogs about coaching, encourage coaches and leaders to ask people what motivates them. Discussing people’s motivation is a good thing. But asking people what motivates them is unwise because most people aren’t aware of the three basic psychological needs that are foundational for optimal motivation — choice, connection and competence.

The what versus the why of motivation

Without an appreciation of how essential these core psychological needs are to productivity, high performance, sustainable vitality and flourishing, people struggle to identify what motivates them. Unfortunately, they often default to cultural indicators of success promoted through advertising, social media and organizational incentives (tokens, prizes, rewards and status).

So when someone says they’re motivated by money, it’s incumbent on the leader or coach to get to the person’s “why?” Money is the what. But the “why” behind “what” could be the love of family (genuine connection, not obligation), a value for contributing to the welfare of others (authentic compassion, not image enhancement), or financial security (for peace of mind, not status).

Judes Donin, a cofounder of MojoCoach, wrote a blog for her coaching community with the provocative title: “Coaching Blasphemy? Reconsidering the WHY Question.” I share some of how she captured the dilemma of getting beyond the what to the why — and pragmatic tips for doing it.

What is it about the word why that makes people so defensive?  Perhaps it’s because we believe we have to defend our position. Perhaps it’s because of the way it is sometimes said with a certain tone.  Or maybe it’s because we find it irritating when our small kids relentlessly use this word.

I remember the first time my coach shared the problem of the why question with me. My eyes opened wide, and I felt as if I had just been let in on a big leadership secret. I knew this new knowledge would help catapult my communication effectiveness to the next level.

I spent several months eradicating the word why from my language, and it did help. Challenging conversations were, well, less challenging.

Yet in certain situations, something was missing. I didn’t feel as though I was getting to the root of the difficulties some clients were facing. It wasn’t until I read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why,” Edward Deci’s, “Why We Do What We Do” and, finally, Susan Fowler’s “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does” that I realized the problem.

The very reason we refrain from asking why questions is also the reason they can be so powerful: They engage both emotional and cognitive levels in a way that other questions don’t. Used carefully and appropriately, why questions can help clients get unstuck and cause a shift by identifying basic psychological needs of Choice, Connection and Competence.

When appropriate, here are five ways to mindfully use a why question:

  1. When a person is stuck and helplessly procrastinating or placing obstacles in the way, ask a question such as “Why do you think you’re holding on to the status quo?” Use a caring, nonjudgmental tone.
  2. Be prepared to ask a question starting with why up to five times. This is known as the Power of Why technique, according to Fowler.
  3. Listen for ways to align values with the desired end state. You can facilitate a client’s motivational shift by asking them how their values form the “why” behind “what” they hope to achieve.
  4. Listen for psychological needs being undermined. Ask clients how they could be reconnected in a different way. For example, if the quarterly sales meeting has been canceled due to cost savings and your client is complaining about that lack of connection, ask how else they might deepen connection with colleagues.
  5. Finally, ask permission to use the Power of Why. This builds people’s curiosity and helps prevent feelings of being judged.

I don’t often use why in my everyday language — but when I do, I use it thoughtfully and mindfully to open up new possibilities.  As a leader or coach, consider whether a why question might open up new possibilities for you as well.

I’ve written extensively about how unexamined beliefs and unexplored scientific truths about motivation perpetuate misguided workplace practices. To avoid being like that CEO who was limited by his assumed constraints, explore the why behind what you believe and practice regarding motivation.


Susan Fowler is the founder of Mojo Moments and the revolutionary MojoCoach. The second edition of her best-selling leadership book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does,” is now available, as is the companion book written for individuals, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals.” Fowler hosts training programs and is also the author of articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. For more information on MojoCoach, keynotes and book clubs, write [email protected] and visit


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