Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work

Learn new, more productive ways to “light a fire” under members and staff.

By Susan Fowler
May 26, 2016

Why do some of your fitness facility members take full advantage of their memberships while others cancel within the first year? Why do some of your trainers sell their services themselves while others hope the sales guy will do it for them? I’m guessing that these questions keep you up at night. I’m also willing to bet that your motivation tactics haven’t changed much over the years.

If you are continually looking for new ways to lure potential members and staff through incentives, if you accept turnover as a fact of doing business or if you’re simply tired of wondering why motivating people doesn’t work, it’s time to try a different approach. Consider these tips, which are based on the science of motivation, empirical data and—if you’re honest—your own experience.

No More Incentives, Contests or Prizes

You offer them with the best of intentions, but incentives, contests and prizes have a fatal flaw: They distract from the higher-quality reasons that people have for doing what you’re asking them to do. The science of motivation has proved that incentives undermine people’s three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence.

  • Attaching an incentive, a prize or a reward to your request shifts people’s attention to something they cannot control: the external dividend. When sales reps are pressured to obtain an incentive, they’re controlled by that pressure, which undermines their sense of autonomy.
  • Contests pit individuals against each other and set up a scenario where you have one winner and a bunch of disappointed losers. Money, power and status inhibit people’s ability to find meaning and purpose in what they’re doing—that is, it diminishes relatedness.
  • Competition pressures people to be the best—not to be their best, but the best. This unrealistic or unwarranted pressure thwarts people’s autonomy while undermining their creativity and performance and, if they don’t win, their sense of competence.

Ask yourself this: Why are incentives necessary?

Tip: Instead of defaulting to incentives, take the time to reframe membership and sales in meaningful and compelling ways. Help potential customers align a membership at your facility with their own meaningful values or purpose. Help your sales team by tying their efforts to their own meaningful values or noble purpose; a manager who distracts sales efforts with incentives is like a basketball coach who tells players to keep their eye on the scoreboard instead of the ball.

Motivation Doesn’t Work

A compelling truth has emerged from the science of motivation: Motivating people does not work, because people are already motivated. People are always motivated. The question is not if a person is motivated, but why.

Imagine you’ve set up an incentive to get your salespeople to capture activity in an electronic system. Each sales rep is motivated, but for different reasons and with a different quality of motivation. Through motivation conversations you might discover, for example, that while Jake updates his sales every week, the quality of what he enters is subpar because the only reason he’s doing it is to get the incentive—and to get you off his back.

Tip: Conduct a values conversation with Jake. He may realize that his reason for focusing on “the carrot” (getting the incentive) and feeling pressure to avoid “the stick” is not healthy. His lack of well-being is reflected in the lack of quality in his results.

Help Jake find his own reasons for using the new sales system—reasons that are aligned with his own values. You may be tempted to share your values about why the process is important, or you may try to “sell” Jake on using the sales system, but the purpose of the conversation is to help Jake clarify his values. Does Jake have clearly developed values about selling your products or services?

It’s impossible for you to help your staff align goals to meaningful values if they don’t know what their values are! Here’s another example:

Debbie thought about your incentive and concluded that it’s not worth it. She isn’t using the sales system, because she values being on the floor and interacting with potential members and regulars more than she values the incentive you’ve offered. She rationalizes that it’s more important to be with members than to be a slave to a sales system.

Tip: Facilitate a mindful moment for Debbie. Explain that the incentive was just your attempt to call attention to the need for capturing sales data. Through a mindful examination of her options, Debbie might realize that taking 15 minutes to capture information in a central place could ultimately benefit potential and regular members even more than her vigilance on the floor does. The incentive itself is irrelevant.

Now let’s look at Lilly, who is able to take advantage of sales opportunities, interact with members and capture her sales activity thoroughly and regularly. This is the perfect scenario, yes? Maybe not! Could your strategy be sabotaging Lilly?

Tip: Lilly would probably be the one to win the incentive—but she doesn’t need it. In fact, your incentive has diminished the efforts of high-performers like Lilly. She doesn’t need your incentives or your praise. So, instead, give Lilly the opportunity to reflect on how she feels about making a contribution to sales forecasting, being a good corporate citizen and providing information that ultimately serves members. This will sustain her energy more than your opinion or your incentive will.

Not All Motivation Is Created Equal

Again, motivating people doesn’t work, because people are already motivated! What matters most is the reason for their motivation. Your role is to facilitate people’s understanding of those reasons and their alternate choices. When prospects find meaning in becoming members, and when your staff finds meaning in serving those members, everyone reaps rewards that are more satisfying than any incentive, contest or prize you can afford. Better yet, everyone ends up winning.

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Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler is widely known as one of the foremost experts on personal empowerment. Her extensive experience and knowledge gained through 15 years of advertising, sales, production and marketing across the United States has fueled her quest to help individuals achieve their highest levels of success. Susan is a catalyst for CHANGE through compelling evidence, humor, accelerated learning, next steps, global perspective and emotional connections. She is the co-author of more than six books, including Why Motivation Doesn't Work...and What Does, Situational Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager with Ken Blanchard and Laurie Hawkins.

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