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How to motivate difficult people

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Film director Alfred Hitchcock described a situation in which an actor approached him with the question:

“What’s my motivation?”

To which Hitchcock’s answer was:

“Your salary!”

Hitchcock clearly thought of pay as a motivator.

But do external rewards keep you motivated and providing your best performance day in day out?

Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, suggest that leaders need to ditch the focus on external benefits (salary) and focus instead on internal motivation (the enjoyment of work). 

If leaders need to motivate they need to provide "Inspirational Influence".

They argue that if you sincerely enjoy what you’re doing and look forward to doing an activity again and again - you won’t need to push yourself so hard to do it.

In short, "Inspirational Influence" is about leaders and mangers motivating and influencing by understanding the experience for the individual or team not just the goal.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers: Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, found that people value positive experience more while in the middle of an activity as compared to before or after the task. 

They conducted several experiments where they asked participants to exercise, visit a museum, evaluate jokes and rate a computer manual for clarity. 

The primary purpose was to look at the different kinds of motivation offered by two incentives: the outcome of an activity (e.g. getting paid) and the experience offered by the activity itself (e.g. reading jokes). 

Results showed that when the participants were asked about what was important to them while they were doing the activity, they highlighted the experience more than when they were asked about it before or after the task. Regardless of the pay.

For example, the participants who did the fun task (joke) finished more than those who did the dull one (computer manual). 

In the final experiment, the researchers asked the participants to choose between doing a dull (but better paid) task versus doing a fun (but lower paid) one.

The majority chose the dull but higher-paying job, but when they were asked later on, most expressed regret about their choice.

The EBW View

The research by Woolley and Fishbach, has wide-ranging implications in the real world and the importance of internal rewards in terms of job satisfaction and engagement can’t be highlighted enough.

The key take away though is that although intrinsic incentives are important when a person is working, these incentives matter less when the person is outside work or making a choice about the work they want to do.

So, if you are in a role where you have to help people make choices (leader, manager, coach...), it is worth remembering that most people are not aware of what truly motivates them, therefore, they are less likely to consider a choice that will give them a positive work experience, if it means they have to persist longer on the work activities to get the outcome they want.

Most people will go for the quick win.

Therefore, a key component to motivating and influencing talented or difficult people is recognising 'their level of insight' that they have into their motivation. How that will affect their choices and ultimately how hard they will work and for how long.

"Inspirational Influence" is about providing insight into people's motivation and providing them with experience that fulfil their intrinsic needs.

For example, some people are naturally very passionate and motivated about the work they do and it is part of who they are, while others will be more methodical in their approach to completing the job/project, but they may gain intrinsic incentives through the work itself. 

Think about some of the projects you have been involved in recently, those where you were very engaged and committed and those which were less exciting and engaging:

  • What was the difference between the projects that you felt excited by and those that you were not?  

  • Was it your salary? Or was the difference to do with the type of work you were asked to do?

  • Was it the people you were working with? 

  • The way you felt about the client or your own organisation? 

  • Was it simply to do with your energy levels?

Understanding and using "Inspirational Influence" to motivate and influence is a key EQ tool leaders and managers need to build successful teams and organisations.  

Discover how we provide leaders and managers with the skills and tools to inspire and change how people work together. Powerfulleadership.