Why Motivation is Always Awkward

The M-word (motivation) is best avoided at work—here's why


To invoke the word ‘motivation’ oft-implies a lack of it (which is rarely the case) and can thus easily become patronising. Talking about motivation—in the context of people ‘needing more of it’—suggests a lack of empathy.* Not to mention curiosity.


* No matter how well intended. Also: this includes empathy for your own self. Over the years I’ve seen many a folk berate and flagellate themselves over a supposed lack of motivation.


For example, imagine a leader wants to hire someone to come in and ‘motivate their team’. Why, this would only be needed if the team ‘lacked motivation’ (either by not having it, or not having enough of it). And so a motivational speaker or equivalent is hired, and they come along and motivate the team. 

This will generate some buzz and a temporary burst of enthusiasm (which is why such affairs are often conducted just before employee engagement surveys). But my contention is thus: ‘motivating people’ does little to change people’s motivation.

Besides, how would you feel if someone suggested you lacked motivation (inadvertently or otherwise) at work? 

You may find yourself on the defensive, and probably with good reason. For what would they know about the complexities and frustrations of your world? The very suggestion lacks curiosity and empathy. Do they even understand what you are trying to achieve? And do they have any idea as to the friction that exists between you and your goals? Not to mention the complexity and myriad distractions (or drudgery)?

No: they possibly don’t appreciate all of this.* Instead of applying a modicum of curiosity, they go for the simplistic approach of believing you and the team ‘lack’ motivation. Because, surely, if you had the motivation, you would have figured out a better way.°


* I’m applying a version of the straw man fallacy here, conjuring an exaggerated and fictitious example simply to serve a point.
° Interestingly, at this point one might have the curiosity and empathy to wonder what indicators are being used to assess things. Is it merely the established targets and KPIs? Or are they also working from keystone behavioural observations too? What’s happening in your leader’s world (if you have one)? What are their hopes and anxieties? Chances are something is happening, if they desire for you and the team to be ‘more motivated’. The key is what?


It’s at this point we ought define motivation, as few other psychological concepts have such popularity in modern society. But, with popularity comes the dumbing-down. And so, whilst knowing that motivation is complex, and that there are many lenses to which one might view motivation through, for the sake of this musing (and in general) I define it as thus: 

Motivation is the desire or willingness to do something.

Naturally, this is influenced by many factors. But here’s the thing:


It's Almost Never About Motivation


Of course, it is. But one of the safest assumptions you can make, is that people are already motivated to do great work. They want to do great work.°


* This observation is more apt for knowledge-based work, and assumes you hire well. But even if you were to hire poorly, it’s safer to assume that someone has the desire or willingness to do great work—otherwise your low opinion will taint the assumptions, conversations and decisions you make (which, in turn, will start to manifest more evidence to support your view).


But... several factors exist betwixt and between the intention and the desired behaviour(s) actually manifesting, including:

  • Friction—the difficulty, cognitive demand and/or resistance we encounter, and the effort required to initiate or persist.*

  • Triggers—the presence or absence of cues, requests, and prompts that call upon us to act (wherein we must consider the cadence, variety and medium to which these triggers are deployed, lest we become blind to them°).

  • Feedback—the sense of progress we obtain by engaging in said behaviour.◊

  • Ambiguity—the clarity of goals/purpose/objectives and/or the steps required to achieve them (along with the impact of unknown unknowns).

  • Complexity—the nonlinearity of work (where inputs are disproportional to outputs), and the potential for unintended consequences.

  • Volatility—the stability of goals and objectives, where shifting targets (high volatility) can translate to conservative effort (which, in turn, can be perceived as low motivation).

  • Uncertainty—the doubt as to the efficacy of one’s course of action, and the ramifications of potential failure (culturally contextual) can see us favour more certain behaviours.☆

  • Anxiety—the apprehension that comes from working beyond one’s skillset or outside of one’s comfort zone. This can translate into covert self-sabotaging behaviours.†

  • Boredom—the apathy that comes from non-challenging work that is well within one’s skillset and comfort zone. This can translate into complacency and plateaued performance.

  • Distraction—the new normal. As Cal Newport observes (in Deep Work), we now take breaks from distraction to do focused work (think: writing retreats and internet sabbaths), whereas it really ought be the other way around. Focused work ought be the norm—but the modern work environment is drenched in distraction. It is therefore no wonder why we see simpler (default) behaviours favoured (as these require the least time and focus—see below).

  • Delusion—the natural defaulting to the things that demonstrate visible effort and the richest sense of progress (at the expense of the activities that generate the most meaningful progress—that which brings us closer to future relevance).‡

  • Dissonance—the incongruence that comes when our actions are misaligned to our values/ideals/ontological frame of reference. This can be subtle.


* Some friction is necessary—but most is the result of poor design. Think: a clunky outdated internal CRM with long load time and many steps, versus a more intuitive commercial CRM that's integrated into your mail app.
° Ala habituation. See From Invisible to Influence by Jaxzyn.
◊ And, our activity will naturally gravitate to the things that provide the richest sense of progress. Therefore, the activities that produce immediate, visible and measurable feedback are naturally favoured over the things that have latent, delayed or ambiguous feedback loops (that are difficult to visualise or quantify). Much of meaningful progress lives in the latter.
☆ Thereby perpetuating default thinking and behaviour, and the glacial pace of chance most organisations experience.
† And, given the Peter Principle, this could explain the inefficacy of many leadership initiatives. I’m not at all suggesting that leaders are inept—rather, we need more maturity in dealing with the very real and very universal foibles of human nature, recognising that we are all perfectly imperfect, and that each of our strengths cast a shadow (and vice-versa).
‡ In many workplaces, it’s much more of a career advancement strategy to broadcast that you’re doing the work than it is to actually do the work itself. Hence the pantomime of meetings, reports, emails and noise that perpetuates amidst most organisations.


This quick and rather crude list charters the murky cloud that surrounds motivation, and the domain of Motivation Design.

You’ll note that none of these factors (with the possible exceptions of anxiety and dissonance) are internal drivers of motivation (that is: the inner psychological dimensions of your identity and ideologies). They’re the external factors* that influence/shape/diminish/amplify the inherently motivating elements of work.° 


* Internal/external are simple descriptors. Internal = the inner (subjective) factors that influence one's motivation, external = the outer (objective/observable) factors that influence one's motivation.
° What do I mean by ‘inherent’? Well, we're in murky territory here, and you'll note that I have avoided the terms ‘extrinsic’ or ‘intrinsic’. Suffice to say: ‘inherent’ and ‘intrinsic’ can be used interchangeably. And yet, 'intrinsic' is a world that has since become a mangled concept, oft used interchangeably with internal drivers, values and motives. Hence I avoid this potential misnomer by using ‘inherent’ in place of ‘intrinsic’.


In many ways, internal motivation isn’t a major factor. Sure, if we had time to work in a coaching relationship using a sound approach, it may be that we can attain some significant motivational wins. But in the context of work, where coaching magic is difficult to scale, it is better to assume motivation already exists. Thus, we don't need more of it. Rather, we need to focus on the factors that exist betwixt and between intention and behaviour—the external factors that assist or impede meaningful progress.

This is an entirely different flavour of conversation.

And so, as we begin to enter the end of year, it is tempting for many of us to bemoan the supposed lack of achievement or progress we have made in our year (as a precursor to exaggerated new year’s resolutions). But instead of feeling as though there is something ‘wrong’ with us (our attitude or motivation), perhaps we might consider what might be ‘wrong’ (that is: less than ideal) with that which is external to us. In other words—how might we better shape the external factors, so as to positively influence our motivation to do great work?

Likewise, as we contemplate what we might do to ‘motivate’ our respective teams in the new year—I posit that we may wish to consider a more strategic and empathetic approach. If a particular desired behaviour is not manifesting, ponder why. Assume good motivation and intent, and then consider—with curiosity, and from a dissociated metacognitive state—what better (path)ways may exist? What rituals and feedback loops we might establish, and what friction and delusion we might mitigate?


This is a much surer (and more sustainable) path to meaningful progress. Good hunting.

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