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3 Steps To Being A Master Of Motivation


By Susan Fowler, author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging

Colleagues Applauding Senior Businessman

Entrepreneurs are known for their energetic and passionate work ethic. But often, their employees don’t share their enthusiasm. So, where is the disconnect?

Consider this example:

Billy Yamaguchi of Yamaguchi Salons has worked on the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga, Deepak Chopra, and Phil Jackson. But while his business thrived — something was perplexing him. His stylists weren’t as eager to build their clientele as he thought they should be. He tried to motivate them by infusing his values and sense of purpose into them, but it didn’t work. He tried incentives. Nothing. Finally, he realized the issue: People are motivated by their own values and purpose, not his values and his purpose. Billy began investing the time to help his staff:

  • Develop their own workplace values and purpose.
  • Align their values and purpose with the salon’s mission to help everyone express their personal power and inner beauty through the principles of Feng Shui Beauty.

According to Billy, “The change in our team’s passion and productivity is remarkable.”

So how does a leader become a master of motivation? Try these three tips:

Stop resorting to contests, prizes, or incentives.

You have the best of intentions with your contests, but, unfortunately, resorting to contests, prizes, and incentives share a fatal flaw. They distract people from higher-quality reasons to do what you are asking them to do.

The science of motivation has valid proof that being distracted by an incentive undermines people’s three basic psychological needs — autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

  1. Attaching a prize or reward to a request shifts people’s attention to something they cannot control — winning the prize — and undermines their sense of autonomy.
  2. Competition pits individual against individual — setting up a scenario where you have a bunch of disappointed losers and one winner — and undermines people’s sense of relatedness. The prize changes the focus away from the value, purpose, and fun of the activity, adding to diminished relatedness.
  3. Competition pressures people to be the best — not to be their best, but the best — and pressure not only results in thwarting people’s autonomy, it undermines creativity, performance, and if they don’t win, their sense of competence.

Ask yourself why incentives are necessary. What leads you to believe bribes are needed so people will do what you ask of them?

Tip: Take the time to reframe what you need in a meaningful or compelling way. Don’t distract people by encouraging them to keep their eye on a prize that may never come. Help people align what’s being asked of them to meaningful values or purpose. People will be rewarded in more meaningful ways than any prize you can afford. Better yet, everyone ends up winning.

Reconsider praising.

Neuroscience imaging shows praising stimulates the reward-center of your brain. This is not a good thing. Rewards have a detrimental effect on productivity, sustainable performance, and overall well-being. Praising — an intangible reward — can have the same eroding effect.

  • “Sara, I am proud of you for getting this report done ahead of time. It makes my life much easier. I hope you will be this timely in the future.”

Praising — information cloaked in your personal approval — may appear to work, but it works for the wrong reasons. Praise triggers a person’s desire to please you or to avoid feelings of guilt, shame, or fear. Neither outcome is effective. If the reason for people’s motivation is to please you, then their behavior is dependent on your continued praising. This is a burden to you, but it can be debilitating to the person whose development is stunted by their external need for your approval.

Tip: Wean people from their dependence on your praise by giving pure feedback. Feedback gives people the choice to continue acting wisely, deepens their sense of contribution and connection, and validates their competence. Help people develop their own capacity for self-evaluation and correction. Avoid cloaking developmental information with your pride in them, your need for their continued behavior, or personal opinions.

Ask Why You Need to Hold People Accountable.

Do you feel like you need to hold people accountable? Why? Do you think they underperform because they’re lazy or irresponsible? The science of motivation provides an alternate perspective worth considering: Our basic human nature is to thrive. People do not want to be bored and disengaged. They want to contribute, do worthwhile work, and grow and learn every day.

People tend to internalize accountability measures as a form of pressure. You say: “We will hold you accountable.” People tend to hear “We don’t trust you to be accountable. We cannot trust you, so we need to hold your feet to the fire.” These interpretations erode their sense of autonomy, relatedness, and competence — basic psychological needs that promote optimal motivation and thriving. Ironically, accountability measures may be promoting poor performance. Imagine how the workplace might be different if we realized: People don’t want to be held accountable, but people want to be accountable.

Tip: If you need to hold underperformers accountable, look in the mirror and then ask why. Double check to see if your leadership has provided underperformers with:

  • Adequate training
  • Appropriate leadership style given their level of development
  • SMART goals, where the M stands for motivation based on important values, purpose, or intrinsic enjoyment
  • Systems that are fair and just

Consider putting the new science of motivation to work. You will find yourself intentionally promoting people’s optimal motivation, high-quality productivity, sustainable performance, and flourishing. Like Billy, you will become a master of motivation.


Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains”Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging“. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines.


  1. Dear Anna,
    I appreciate your comment! The question I’m asking you to consider regarding rewards and incentives is what do we mean by “had very good results?” What is the quality of motivation people have when the reason for their motivation is based on incentives? The research shows that when people are motivated by external rewards it inhibits their creativity and innovation, endangers their physical and mental health, creates pressure to win that produces lower quality work, and doesn’t sustain positive energy–especially on longer term goals. It’s not that people don’t like rewards, it’s that there are motivational options that produce better results–for both the organization and the individual’s well-being. My book describes it better, but I wanted to respond since you took the time to comment. Again, thank you!

    • Hi Susan, thanks for taking the time to reply, really appreciate it. By “good results” I meant that the team became more productive which resulted into an exponential increase in client acquisitions and business revenue. Of course, the incentives and recognition are not the only factors that led to this but it definitely improved the quality of our output.

      I definitely find the research very fascinating! And agree on some points. I guess there is just no one-size fits all when it comes to managing people.

  2. Hi Susan, thanks for this very interesting article. As a former employee, I do appreciate when my superiors and bosses give us incentives and recognition for the hard work that we do. When I got promoted, I did the same and had very good results. While I agree that it also has repercussions, I think it all depends on how a leader handles or executes reward programmes.


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