Steven's Blog

Business meeting with salespeople

Motivation is Overrated

When a CEO asks me how to better motivate his or her employees to change, the focus is on the wrong thing. Motivation can get a person started, but only discipline can see him or her through to an outcome.

What do I mean by discipline? I define discipline as an individual’s tenacity to behave in a way to build a better future despite immediate penalty and/or uncertain payoff. It takes discipline to become an Olympic athlete, where the immediate sacrifices are enormous and the payoff is uncertain. It is far easier to set one’s sites lower, or not set them at all. It takes discipline for a sales team to transition to a new business model using a consultative approach with end-buyers, when it is so much more comfortable, easier, and with predictable results doing route sales to distributors who have been buying from them in this way for decades. 

I was once asked to coach several managers at a client company, all of whom were highly motivated to be coached. Yet, it was not motivation that mattered when I began pushing each to grow beyond his or her comfort zone. It was only those who were disciplined who used my support to make progress whereas as the merely motivated balked and faltered, even with my help. Discipline takes over when motivation is overwhelmed.

Change at an organizational level is often the same. You can motivate change in an organization, but the follow-through to an outcome requires individual discipline as well as company support. Click To Tweet When Rakuten Ichiba CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, made English the company’s global language of business—even internally in the office in Japan—motivation among staff was inconsistent at best. Yet, it was not motivation that mattered the most. Each employee was free to decide how to meet the standard, as he or she saw fit, with company support. Those who wanted to study English on company time? No problem, as long as they achieved the objectives of their job as well. It is hard not to succeed under such terms, but success did require individual discipline. 

Eighty percent achieved the change according to Mikitani, but twenty percent did not. Was that twenty percent a loss for the company? I doubt it. Those who remained were not just motivated, but also disciplined. And it will be discipline that will count for the next rounds of change to come.

Motivation alone is fleeting. This is why motivational speeches and speakers on their own rarely if ever achieve any lasting results. Discipline, however, is like a muscle. An individual strengthens discipline by exercising it regularly, and only you as a leader can provide the means of support for success.

You cannot, however, exercise discipline for your employees or anyone else. Individual discipline is always self-imposed. Anything else is merely coercion. The most you can do as a leader is allow the freedom to exercise individual discipline.

So if you want staff who are motivated to see a needed change through to an outcome, then make freedom to exercise discipline and being held accountable for doing so part of your company’s culture. Supply the means of support for success, and not just additional “motivation,” and then get out of the way.

For it is not a better way of motivating people that will help. It is cultivating people who motivate themselves and letting go of those who lack the discipline to do so.


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