On Motivation

What Others Have To Say . . .

Part of every writing task is my usual informal conversations with a random set of people, asking them about the subject matter I am investigating. One morning I asked Kris Ann, one of our students, “How do you motivate a person?” I was expecting answers similar to what some of my favorite experts have to say about the topic. Instead, she replied with an innocent question — shaking the very foundation of my inquiry, “How do I motivate a person to do what?” Never expecting another question as a response to my question, I immediately jumped back to the basics and reviewed the word motivation.

It occurred to me that yes — she was right — motivation is a transitive verb. It needs an object. Suddenly I realized that my question is too assuming and somewhat incomplete. Can I simply ask what motivates a person without ever asking what task she needs motivation to?

Reviewing the books I have read, I realized that many authors including some of my favorite authors treat “motivation” as if it is an intransitive verb — implying that a person is either motivated or not. But as our student innocently pointed out through her naive yet profound question, a person can be highly motivated to do one task and totally passionless, uninspired or unmotivated to do another.

Motivation is a huge topic. John C. Maxwell enumerated some specific suggestions on how to motivate a person. These are universal triggers, meaning, most people in most circumstances, will most likely be motivated by these triggers, hence, they are called universal triggers. In his books, Developing The Leader Within You, he says that a person is motivated if:

  • he’s engaged in a significant task
  • he knows his contribution
  • he participates in goal setting
  • he has a positive dissatisfaction (dissatisfied in the status quo)
  • he has clear expectations
  • he is recognized

In another book, Becoming A Person of Influence, John Maxwell and Jim Dornan point out that we can motivate a person if we nurture him (emotionally and mentally), if we have faith in him, if we listen to him, and if we understand him.

Kenneth Blanchard claims in his books Leading at a Higher Level and The One Minute Manager series, that the people who produce are the “people who feel great about themselves.” Guided by this assumption, they created the “situational Leadership” where the leaders’ task is to make their people feel great about themselves by coaching them to grow gradually, acquire expertise in their field, and finally become highly independent and matured enough to become self-motivated themselves.

In Please Understand Me II, Dr. David Keirsey, while discussing in great details the differences of temperaments, elaborates that interest, practice, and skill interplay to make a person excel in one particular area. As we practice daily the things that naturally interests us, we gradually gain skills and expertise on that area. Then, as we experience successes because of our gained expertise we become more interested (and motivated) . . . so we practice more. The cycle continues until we become best in what we do. We become highly motivated.

Parallel to David Keirsey’s “interest,” Marcus Buckingham, in his very provocative book First, Break All The Rules, tells that it is our unique strengths that drive our motivation. He defines strength as the combination of our unique talents, skills, and knowledge. Ushered by clear distinctions among these three (skills and knowledge are transferable and trainable, while talent is innate and is definitely nontransferable), he advocates that organizations need to align their people’s strengths with the job they are performing.

Dr. Daniel Goleman is the only source I have encountered who dissected “motivation” like a frog — showing its anatomy through scientifically trained eyes. In his highly recommendable books Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence, he says that motivation is directly linked with our emotion. He further explains that people become motivated when he enters into what he calls “flow.” A flow is a state where a person is holistically engaged in a particular task — meaning, his whole being is integrated in performing something. A person in the state of “flow” forgets about the time and space. He is literally consumed by the process of what he’s doing rather than by the result that awaits his performance.

At first, all of these authors seem to treat the topic of motivation as if it’s an intransitive verb, that is, “A person is either motivated or not.” Perhaps these authors focus their ‘motivation’ to a single object: success. But as I stare deeper into the concept, I see the pattern more clearly.

When I first read their books, I thought these authors express different and unrelated views; Maxwell focuses on character and competence; Blanchard on situational leadership; Goleman on the power of emotions; Keirsey on temperaments and intelligences; Buckingham on talents.

However, listening intently to what they are saying, I recognize that they are simply speaking of the same universal principles carefully and vividly demonstrated from different angles: motivating people to grow into their maximum potential. This is a universal perspective: everyone needs to grow.

After all, Kris Ann was right in her line of thinking: people have different potentials. There is diversity. We cannot motivate a person in everything or in every task. There are some areas that we are naturally inclined to . . . some areas that naturally triggers our appetite . . . some areas that normally drives us.

Paradoxically, I believe, my quoted authors are also right — there are some universal triggers that motivate us all.

In other words, every person is motivated both differently and universally. Now, if I want to motivate a person, I think, I need to find out what his unique triggers are, and capitalize on them when motivating him. Meanwhile, I can also look for those universal source of motivation that are common to everyone, and tap on them as well.