Ten Proven Motivation Principles

Energy conservation is critical in these overextended times. The most effective motivation entails supporting others.

We've all heard that knowledge can bestow power. More specifically, practical principles, when understood and well applied, provide the leverage to change reality -- whether in science, construction, sports performance, mathematics, or organizations. And very much for the art and science of motivation.

Critical caveat: "Motivation" often is code for someone attempting to sweet-talk, pressure, or manipulate others into working toward the "motivator's" best interest. Sooner or later, this leads to resistance or blowback. Just as it's possible to "fool some of the people only some of the time," insincere motivation or attempts at treating others as tools to be used are soon followed by plunging trust and credibility. These approaches have limited lifespans at best. More likely they just don't work from the get-go; trying to jam square people into round slots usually won't propel them off the starting blocks.

In fact, changemaster Kurt Lewin researched what he termed "superchargers," people who commanded performance through pressure and force. Lewin found that employees would only work toward the supercharger's objectives when they perceived the leader's physical or watchdog presence. As soon as that pressure was gone (when the cat was away…), the work stopped. At times, employees even sabotaged or undid the work they'd accomplished at the behest of the power source.

This old command-and-control style of supercharging is dated at best. More companies now site dispersed/remote workforces that are impossible to physically watchdog. Employees in more "enclosed" plants typically have supervisors with too many direct reports to practically oversee workers for any appreciable time.

In contrast, the best and most lasting motivation doesn't attempt to force people to be different or spin or maneuver them into doing what they don't believe in; rather, it taps into their already existing internal motivations and marries this to organizational objectives. So most successful motivation takes relatively less effort and time because it first surfaces and then taps into employees' personal interests. The win-win message sent is, "you can get more of what you want by simultaneously helping the organization get better." Regrettably, this straightforward and proven approach is often disregarded by those who believe they can manipulate others to their approach.

Let's get to the basics. "Motivation" literally means "to move." At its best, this implies helping others take action, break stasis, and move toward a positive direction. Energy conservation is critical in these overextended times. The most effective motivation entails supporting others -- not forcing or misrepresenting in ways that result in pushback or otherwise require ongoing effort that is difficult to sustain.

On a physical level, there are three main ways to help someone move a few steps: 1. Pull them, 2. Push them, or 3. Move alongside them with "Secondary Pressure." If you try to push or pull someone forward by the arm, you'll find their instinctive reaction is to resist, dig in their heels. Even if you can overpower them and force them to take a few steps, at most they'll do so reluctantly and will stop moving as soon as you let up pulling or pushing. Way 3 requires more direction and less effort. Stand by their side, gently make appropriate contact (on the back of their shoulder) and then move yourself, rather than trying to push them. This provides a subtle but powerful signal to move. Putting this physical metaphor into practice, the best leaders don't necessarily "lead from the front," they walk alongside those with whom they work. This approach necessitates seeing things from others' perspective: What interests or stimulates them? Where would they like to get better? They then "walk beside" others by showing how they can move closer to their objectives.

While volumes could be -- and are -- written on the art and science of persuasion or motivation, here are 10 proven principles that have worked in numerous companies worldwide with a wide range of people:

1. Move yourself in order to move others. In "Don't Let It Bring You Down," Neil Young wrote, "just find someone who's turning and you will come around." If you can be the one who's "turning," you can elicit movement in others. On the other side, how can you move others if you can't change yourself? Work toward modifying your own less-desired habits, yoke your fears or dispassion into positive action as a proving ground for understanding what's needed to generate movement out of others' stasis.

2. Close the distance. The Universal Gravitational Law states that the closer two objects are, the more force they exert on each other. Same principle: Understand that personal email is "closer" and therefore more persuasive than generic broadcast messages, phone conversations are closer than email, and face-to-face communications are "closer" yet. This also works when presenting; closing even a small distance toward participants generates more receptivity than does standing behind a podium.

3. Make it personal. Tell personal (real) anecdotes about yourself and what you learned. Invite others to do the same.

4. Make it attractive. Think of magnetizing/attracting others’ current interests, rather than trying to motivate them according to what's important to you or what you think should be important to them.

5. Make it easy to do. The less you ask others to do, the more likely they'll be able to do something. Taking any positive action, no matter how small, breaks their inertia and lubricates their stuck-ness.

6. Make it within their control. Focus on things they can actually do rather than just get frustrated about. If they believe they can't make a major change, ask them to try to employ a new method just once a day; once they've "broken the ice," they can build toward increasingly using that new skill.

7. Make it practical. Get away from dispensing disconnecting communications (such as "Never jump out of a truck bed"); rather, demonstrate how much force enters the body in even small, empty-handed jumps and, if someone does jump, how to minimize forces and injury potential.

8. Heighten alignment with existing motivations. Identification can be a powerful motivator. For example, if someone has a favorite sports team, you might discuss the PPE and safety practices employed by their favorite team.

9. Enlist their senses -- kinesthetic, discovery. Avoid expecting others to "do as I say." If a picture is worth a thousand words, a feeling is worth a million. We've seen dramatic improvements in actions, outlook, and performance by setting up scenarios where workers can try out and discover the benefits of a new procedure, tool, or skill for themselves.

10. Develop a culture of internal motivation. Where supervisors and executives send out consistent messages encouraging workers to try new methods, they continually learn and improve and are mentally interested.

The best, most powerful, and lasting motivation springs from people convincing themselves. Think of developing internal motivation where workers -- and managers -- can become auto-motivational, rather than resisting being endlessly pushed or prompted by an exhausted leader.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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