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Just stop motivating me!

Published: Friday, July 08, 2016

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Words by Gavin Freeman

How many times have you actually thought this statement? For the most part I am sure it was subconscious, but I suspect there may have been a few moments in which you simply lost control and shouted it aloud.

We are continually bombarded with messages designed to motivate us to do something, stop something, start something, or even blame someone for something that is likely out of their control. Motivation is a powerful emotion, which, since the dawn of time, has driven our behaviours and even kept us safe. But there is a good chance we have been thinking about it all wrong.

Let’s consider the typical magazine article, written to motivate you to lose weight. There are usually 5 reasons why you need to lose weight, followed by 5 of the best foods to eat (to help with the aforementioned weight loss) and 5 exercises guaranteed to take 5cm off your waist line. All these messages are underpinned with a theory of motivation which is best described as the ‘reward vs punishment’ approach to motivation. That is, you will be rewarded if you follow their process by losing the weight, gaining the perfect partner or (with tongue firmly in cheek) achieve all of your life’s goals!

Conversely, if you don’t follow this advice, the opposite will occur and you will be deemed the pariah of your Facebook community. The ‘reward vs punishment’ theory continues to suggest that if you were rewarded with a positive outcome, you would continue to demonstrate that behaviour. If not rewarded, you would receive negative reinforcement which was designed to shame you to get back on track.

So if the above theory is accurate, why do we continue to either not start these activities, or start the activity and then choose to stop it? Or worse, continue but hate every moment of it and become incredibly miserable? Consider why we choose to stay in a job we dislike and every time we express our feelings, management gives you a raise or reason to stay. I’ll leave it up to you to consider your own situation and how YOU respond to each of the above examples.

This leads me to my approach to motivation and the focus of my new book, Just Stop Motivating Me. The mistake we have been making for a while now, is that we believed that others could not only motivate us, but also create such a powerful change in our mindset that we would choose to maintain the new behaviour once the motivator removed themselves from the environment (or you manage to put the magazine away).

News flash – nobody can motivate you to do anything. Well that’s not quite true; they can coerce you to act in a different way if the reward is great enough. But over time, and as the reward diminishes in perceived value, so will your motivation. The key to your motivation can be found in the motivational mindset continuum. The continuum suggests that if we are engaged in a task we will always be motivated, but the type of motivation will vary depending on the context and impact of the task.

The continuum has two polar ends, the first being the motivation to succeed, while its polar cousin is the motivation to avoid failure. Motivation is still the central theme, it is the position on the continuum which makes all the difference. When we are motivated to succeed, we see the outcome as a function of the steps required to get there, we are focused on the process and if a team is involved, very team-focused.

When in this mindset and failure is imminent, we increase effort and intensity, re-direct our focus and if needed, take ownership of error. Failure in this mindset is simply seen as a stepping stone to future success. Conversely, when motivated to avoid failure, we are still looking to demonstrate success but use a different approach. We tend to want to display superiority over others regardless of the cost and are focused purely on the outcome and how it will be evaluated, and less on the process.

If we are working in a team, we are less likely to team up as we often don’t trust the people we are working with. Unfortunately, when we are in this mindset and failure creeps up on us, our response is less than exemplary. We bring out the old BJDD (Blame, Justify, Defend and Deny) or as Shaggy eloquently wrote in his hit single, “It wasn’t me!”

When we are in this mindset it is very difficult to focus on anything but the possible negative evaluation of yourself, by you or others. The challenge for all of us is that it’s hard enough to know when we are shifting from one mindset to the other, and even harder to recognise it in others.

So in keeping true with all those wonderful magazines that offer you ‘5 ways to cure world hunger’, I offer you 6 tips you should consider when stopping people from motivating you:

1. Before you decide on what you want to do, ask yourself “Why?” you want to do it. The answer is likely to be different for everyone – record it somewhere visible and share with loved ones

2. Cognitive or thought-based goals are useless (ie. thinking you will do something won’t make it happen). You need to ensure all your activities are behavioural based and have multiple steps that lead to success

3. Responsibility for something is useless unless you are held accountable for it. So don’t take on any task unless your level of responsibility is matched to your level of accountability. One small point – you also need the authority to act. Nothing is more demotivating than looking at a task you have been given and realising you have one hand tied behind your back

4. Reflect on your own reactions in the past and determine the characteristics you demonstrated when shifting from one side to the other

5. Debrief on your 'failures' and redefine them as stepping stones

6. Sorry got nothing, so please re-read the first 5 again! 

Gavin Freeman (M.Psych, MBA) author, psychologist and keynote presenter. Gavin has more than 18 years experience in working with high performing individuals and teams, from Olympians to CEOs. 

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