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September 23, 2022

To Motivate or Not to Motivate? – Thought of the Day

Zala Bricelj


©© GettyImages/njnightsky

What motivates you doesn't necessarily work for someone else. While you may feel empowered by a drill sergeant barking orders at you, another person might find that overwhelming and demotivating. Or maybe you're stimulated by a softer approach that someone else would find boring and uninspiring.

So how can we best motivate others? Whichever method you use, there are surefire ways to motivate and not to motivate.

That's what I reflected on last month, when I wrote about seeing two very different attempts to motivate. I used the Mind Tools Forum to share my experience, and I asked others for their opinions.

Here's some background to the discussion, and a sample of the responses I received.

Demotivational Pep Talks

I live in a neighborhood that houses two kindergartens, two primary schools, a secondary school, and a retirement home. They're all situated along a popular hiking path that many people enjoy using. I usually take this path at least twice a day. (When on maternity leave, I frequented it even more often.) And at least once a day I feel mortified, shocked, or pleasantly surprised by what I hear when I pass these institutions.

I clearly remember one specific situation that led me to ponder motivation. I passed by the secondary school where students were having P.E. outside. They were doing laps, the teacher barking orders at them, and I noticed one was lagging.

Suddenly the P.E. teacher shouted, for everyone to hear, "Come on John, you're not freaking disabled, are you? You'll need to work on you moving your chubby body, will you?" Laughter ensued from the group.

I hate to say it, but I've seen so many shades of this type of motivation, I could write a book! It hurts me even more when ableist language or references to disability or neurodiversity are used. We need to – and can – do better.

I could sense how "John" must've felt. Even if he'd considered trying to finish the lap, he gave up entirely. I thought, "Well, that's the opposite way to motivate a person, let alone help them to embrace something." I got the feeling "John" had not been positively reinforced by the "pep talk."

Encouraging Motivation

But then I passed by the retirement home. There was a group of seniors sitting outside engaged in a group activity: playing the drums. They had big exercise balls and sticks, and they were drumming. There was laughter and fun, and the group facilitator was supporting them excitedly. "Good work, let's hear those drums! You can do it, Mrs X. Now let me hear you, Mr Y. I'm so proud of all of you!" It warmed my heart. For me, that was motivation in its purest form. Not focusing on what a person can't do, but on what they enjoy doing. What you can support them with and encourage them to keep doing (in their own capacity).

In the distance of perhaps a kilometer, I'd seen a dramatic shift in attitude, communication – and motivation.

"As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands. One for helping yourself, the other for helping others."

Audrey Hepburn

It doesn't matter if your job is educating or taking care of others professionally; there's always somebody that you can influence, support and motivate. Sometimes, words that motivate and cheer people on are the least you can do for a person, and they can have a long-lasting effect.

When you take the time and energy to create that spark in others (and yourself), when you focus on nurturing intrinsic motivation for learning and/or doing something, you can create a valuable, lifelong skill.

In the words of Audrey Hepburn, finding ways to help others to focus on their strengths and less on their weaknesses, cheering them on even if they're not doing it perfectly, can be priceless. It can impact people in ways that we've not imagined before.

Transformational Mindset

When I shared my story in the Forum, Sarah Harvey said that it chimed with her. "I loved reading the two examples you shared," she told me. "The school and the retirement home: I could feel how each of them would have been impacted.

"The phrase I loved the most is: 'cheering them on, even if they're not doing it perfectly, can be priceless.' This is something I always try to do personally and encourage the managers I work with to do with their teams. It really is a transformational mindset."

To Motivate, or to Force?

Supriya Dhongde also shared her thoughts. She noted that it takes a special kind of teacher to motivate someone to learn.

"Whether it's drawing, or learning poems in literature class, schools often ruin the fun of doing any activities. The kids are treated and weighted on the same scale. Motivation is through fear, ridicule or shame [that you won't get good grades]."

Supriya added: "I was appalled by the P.E. teacher's disability comment! How insensitive is this to encourage someone? The end result is that learning becomes a means to assert power, defeat someone in competition, and look down on those who are not able to excel. Our overall education system requires overhauling.

"Bless those teachers who are different and look at learning differently, like the one who was ensuring fun while playing the drums."

I agree. Our students are currently much too motivated (forced?) to learn for grades and get into prestige schools or earn accolades. Unfortunately, intrinsic motivation – learning for fun – is something "not on the curriculum." And many teachers and professors are overworked, overstressed, and do not enjoy teaching at all.

When you're teaching, you give a little bit of yourself, you walk in your students' shoes, and need to see the positives in each and every one of them, beyond grades and your KPIs. If not, you've missed your vocation.

Thought of the Day

What experiences have impacted how you learn, do, and create for fun? Let us know in the comments, below!

Keep an eye out for our next Thought of the Day blog: "Armchair Psychology."

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