All Articles Leadership Why motivating people doesn't work -- and what does

Why motivating people doesn’t work — and what does

4 min read


I urge you: Stop trying to motivate people! It’s frustrating for everyone involved and it just doesn’t work.

An important truth has emerged from the compelling science of motivation: Motivating people does not work because people are already motivated. People are always motivated. The question is not if a person is motivated, but why.

For example, imagine you have given the same requirement to three sales people: enter sales activity into Salesforce every week. It’s a mistake to assume they are motivated if they do it and not motivated if they don’t do it (or don’t do it well). Each of them is motivated, but with a different quality of motivation based on their reasons for using Salesforce, or not. Through a motivation conversation with each of them, you might discover:

  • Jake inputs into Salesforce every week, but the quality of what he enters is subpar because he resents every moment of it — the only reason he’s doing it is to get you off his back.
  • Debbie thought about it and concluded that she won’t use Salesforce; she values serving her clients and rationalizes that it’s more important to interact with them than sit in front of a computer.
  • Lily chooses to capture her sales activity thoroughly and regularly because she believes she is contributing to more accurate forecasting and planning; using Salesforce is an act of organizational citizenship behavior that feels good to her.

In each case, the reps have appraised your request (either consciously or subconsciously), come to their own conclusions and gone in their own motivational direction.

The point: Instead of asking if people are motivated to use Salesforce, ask why they are, or are not, using it as requested. All your sales reps are motivated — just for different reasons. And, those reasons are things you can facilitate through a motivation conversation and they can potentially shift.


Through a motivation conversation, Jake may become aware that being pressured to use Salesforce to avoid “the stick” is harmful to his sense of well-being and doesn’t result in a quality effort. To be optimally motivated, Jake needs to use Salesforce for his own reasons that are aligned with his own values.

That prompts important questions. Does Jake have clearly developed values around selling your products or services? Have you ever talked about values with Jake? A values conversation may be in order — not to share your values or reiterate the organization’s values, but to help Jake clarify his own values. It is impossible for you to help people align their goals to meaningful values if they don’t know what their values are!


Through a motivation conversation, Debbie could explore her value for serving clients. Are drop-in meetings more effective than the 15 minutes it takes to enter information on Salesforce? Through Debbie’s mindful examination of her options, she might realize that by capturing information in a central place her support staff can proactively respond — benefiting her clients even more than do her spontaneous visits.


Having a motivation conversation with Lily, who is doing what you wish all your reps would do, gives her the opportunity to reflect on how good she feels about using Salesforce, reinforcing her dedication and sustaining her efforts over time.

As a leader, you can learn to position your requests so your staff is more likely to experience optimal motivation, but the truth is: Every person is motivated for individual reasons. Your role as a leader is to have conversations with your people to facilitate their understanding of those reasons, the implications for their current motivational outlook, and their alternate choices.

Motivation conversations with your staff won’t guarantee their shift from a suboptimal to an optimal motivational outlook, but they will help your people make more conscious and healthy decisions by understanding their underlying reasons for doing, or not doing, what is being requested. What they choose to do with their expanded awareness and your request might just surprise — and delight — you.

Susan Fowler’s best-selling book, “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does,” builds upon compelling science to provide alternatives to traditional approaches to motivation. She presents a cutting-edge framework, model, and course of action to help leaders shape a workplace where people flourish while producing sustainable results.

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