This post describes a different way of thinking about motivation. Our motivation is determined more by how we think, than by the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Change your thinking to change your motivation.
"He who takes his orders gladly, escapes the bitterest part of slavery - doing what one does not want to do."Seneca.
Seneca's “Letters from a Stoic,” contains wisdom which is just as applicable to motivating ourselves and others today, as it was over 2000 years ago. He says: ""The man who does something under orders is not unhappy; he is unhappy who does something against his will.”
He explains how it is not the meanness of the task itself that sucks energy out of us. But rather it is how we view the task. If we view a task as a duty, as something we have to get done, then we force ourselves to do something we don’t want to do. The very definition of drudgery.
Seneca goes on to advise us to work less on the task, and more on our minds.
“Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances.”
If we can change our attitude from seeing a task as an unpleasant duty, to something that we desire to do, then the very same task that we have to push ourself to do, will be one that we barely notice ourselves doing. In a creative flow, hours pass in what seems like minutes.
We work at our worst, when we try to impress others.
An irony of life is that when we push ourselves to produce good quality, or to perform at high standards in order to impress others, we achieve the exact opposite. The act of focusing on producing results or performing for others, works against us.
Yet when we play and enjoy a task, when we are in the flow, when we barely care about the end result, we are able to produce far better quality and perform at a higher standard than we could have imagined.
An artist friend of mine produces her best work, when her mind believes she is playing or dabbling. But the minute she is commissioned to do a piece, and given a deadline to produce it in, her creative muse hides away. When under pressure to perform, the same task that flowed through her and brought her joy, seems tedious.
An entrepreneur friend, says he has learned the art of following his own energy. When he finds a task too tedious, or he finds himself hating what is he doing, he stops and asks himself what is going on. He told me “Usually a voice inside of me is demanding that I produce and achieve at a faster rate than is possible. When I feel like I am punishing myself, my creative muse responds by going on a ‘go slow.’ That’s when I know I have to take the pressure off myself. I then take myself out of the office and do something that feels like a treat. When I am doing something I want to do, rather than ought to do, my subconscious begins to work on the task that I previously found to be tedious. When I get back to the office, its as though all the frustration has been released. My creative muse returns. I get into the flow. I enjoy what I am doing. The article gets written. The proposal completed. The report submitted. All without effort.
Leaders and managers can't force people to do what they don't want to do.
And as leaders and managers, trying to force someone else to do something he/she doesn’t want to do is the very definition of hell.
It is also important for leaders and managers to understand that one cannot get the best from people if we push them to do what they don’t want to do. Which is why leaders like Steve Jobs, often talk about ‘doing what you love.’
How to motivate employees to do their best in difficult situations.
However, it is a fact of business life, that leaders and employees will have to deal with difficult times. So for example, how do we handle the contradiction of wanting to allow people to do what they love, when our business needs to dramatically cut costs in order to stay afloat?
When the numbers people in the organization lead a cost cutting effort, they usually do it by ordering people to obey new rules. “Don’t fly business class. Don’t hire consultants. No more bonuses. No more Christmas parties." By forcing people to do that which they don’t want to do, they are faced with sullen employees, low morale and disgruntled customers. And the end result of that pushing and pain? Very limited actual cost savings.
One organization operating in the health care industry, approached their need for a drastic reduction in their cost structure in a way Seneca would have approved of. Instead of focusing on cost cutting, the directors created an environment within which employees happily, and creatively found ways to reduce costs and improve the way they did things in their own departments.
They invested in their people. They took their managers and team leaders to a conference at a magical venue. They invested personal time and creative energy in ensuring their people experienced a sense of wonder at the conference. They introduced a magical process where their teams learned new exciting ways of solving problems, and how to access the full magic they all had in their brains. They launched Creative Fridays - where their teams had space to think, create, and improve. They introduced competitions around getting better every day. One, and only one of the evaluation criteria for the competitions was the saving of costs. The other criteria included delighting customers, and simplifying the way they did things. The directors took the time to support and recognize those who were improving their departments. The end result of investing so much time, energy and money in their people? They achieved cost savings beyond their wildest dreams.
So why do we as leaders still put ourselves into hell by trying to force people to do things they don’t want to do? Why do we rather not get work on creating a motivating environment that allows our employees to do their best work.