The best leaders understand motivation. Push, pull, self-propel, or drift. Yes to all of it.

Published by Peter on

Progress takes motion. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t move.

There are four basic ways to achieve motion. Good leaders understand how and when to exploit these to their advantage for properly paced progress.

A metaphor I like to use to illustrate these motivations is a boat. If you’re in a boat, then you probably intend to get somewhere. And to get somewhere, you need to move.

So how can you get that boat to move?

Pull: Have a vision

A boat can be towed. Whether it’s attached to a tug, a winch, a swimmer, or a flock of geese, the motion is provided by something ahead pulling the boat in the right direction.

So it is with motivating people and teams. When you’re stuck or adrift, identify the things that can pull you forward. What is at the destination that’s worth getting there for? Who is already there that may be able to help you? Who’s going in the same direction that might pull you along with them? What’s the next light in the fog calling you forward?

Hey, could you give me a tow?

I’m kind of a dreamer. I am very much pulled forward by my ambitions. Knowing the destination and imagining how it will feel to get there is often motivation enough for me to keep moving.

This shows up in my management style as well as my own projects. Although few who worked for me would call me a “visionary leader,” I think they mostly felt I was leading them in a worthwhile direction.

Push: Force it

Boats can also be pushed. This isn’t always a positive thing, and it’s not always in the right direction. Similarly, people and teams can be moved by pushing.

What’s behind you that’s forcing you forward? Pushing is often uncomfortable because it might involve fleeing a dangerous or toxic situation. Or, it might mean being kicked out of a space that feels comfortable and safe. Or it could be a threat of punishment, like getting a bad review at work.

Competition can also be a push force. A lot of professional athletes say they’re pushed both by their coach and the other players because if they don’t stay sharp, someone else is eager to take their place.

As a pleaser, I have always struggled to be a push motivator for my teams. Command is not one of my top strengths. I’m not a task master. I’m not punitive by nature. I want everyone to like me. But sometimes a push has been needed, and I’ve been the one who had to push.

I also don’t react well to being pushed. I know where I want to go. I’m on my way. Stop pushing me!

Hey, quit it! Stop pushing.

Yet I can think of a few times I’ve needed to be pushed. Fortunately, I had people around me to do the pushing.

I see this also with some of my clients who feel stuck. I remember asking one client, “Who do you have pushing you?” He couldn’t name a single person other than me. It got him thinking about how he could give the people close to him permission to push him harder.

Pushing can be risky because it’s so easy to push people in the wrong way. They have to believe you’re pushing them in the right direction. When you push someone, you have to be prepared for them to push back, or to veer off course.

Imagine pushing a boat where the person steering it doesn’t agree with your destination. You can provide the propulsion, but they’ll still have a say in the direction.

So, if you push when they aren’t ready for it, or if you push in a way they don’t understand, there will be conflict and friction.

This disconnect is one of the biggest sources of team dysfunction I see in many organizations. Leaders who expect obedience might talk about getting pushback from their employees. But instead of trying to figure out the disconnect, they just push harder.

That’s a pretty good way to sink the ship, have good people jump ship, or end up with a mutiny.

Self-Propel: Grab the oars!

The most reliable and consistent source of propulsion for a boat is rowing. It relies only on the effort of those on board.

When other methods fail, self-propulsion through sheer personal effort is always available. Sails need wind. Engines need fuel. Pulling and pushing need the input of others.

Oars just need the inherent power of the individual.

Intrinsic motivation is the most effective and reliable motivation. The desire—the need—to get to the destination is the strongest call to action there is.

On my way!

As a leader, you want people who have a strong intrinsic motivation to achieve, and you need to empower them. Give them oars and make sure they’re all pulling together. Then trust them to go hard while you keep them pointed in the right direction.

Too many leaders create structures, systems, and processes that destroy their team members’ intrinsic motivation. Micromanagers insist on holding on to the oars, making it impossible for their employees to row effectively. Bureaucracies create huge ships and give employees tiny oars that may not even reach the water. Unclear strategy leads to employees pulling against each other.

The best leaders know how to identify, attract, and retain intrinsically motivated people; tap into that intrinsic motivation; and trust them to perform. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? But fall short on any of those three, and you’ve got problems.

Drift: Trust to luck or take a breath.

It is possible for a boat to move without any kind of propulsion. Unless it’s tethered, the tides and currents will move it for you. But you have no idea where you’ll end up… if you get anywhere at all.

Drifting is, essentially, trusting to luck and putting your fate in the hands of everything and everyone who is not you. If you want to make progress toward your goals, drifting is a terrible strategy.

But drifting might be a useful tactic from time to time. Sometimes you or your team just need a rest. You can’t row 24 hours a day, every day of your life. That leads to burnout and poor performance.

Just taking a breather.

Drifting can also be the right tactic when you’re unsure where you’re going, or the when current is already carrying you where you want to go, or when you need to wait out some hostile conditions before charging forward again.

The best leaders pay attention to pacing and external conditions. Keeping too fast a pace for too long can burn out your team. Drifting for too long can lead to complacency or boredom.

Leading across generations

Self-motivation, I’ve found, is harder for people who have little life experience—younger generations especially.

They were raised in an environment where they were over-scheduled by their parents, told they could be anything they wanted, told that they had to follow their passion, and received a trophy just for showing up.

So of course many of them feel adrift. They don’t have any idea what their passion is (pull). They bail out when they feel they’re overworked (push). They have oars right beside them, but they’ve never had to row on their own.

If you’re a leader from an older generation that had to learn self-motivation early in life, leading people who don’t have strong intrinsic motivation can be confusing. You may think of younger workers as lazy. But likely they’re just inexperienced at generating their own motivation.

They may just need a little more pull or push along the way, and some coaching on how to discover their ability to self-propel.

This is why leadership requires constant work. Too many people think that being a manager is about being the smartest person in the room. It’s not. It’s about being the one who knows the most about how and when to motivate in the right ways.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills, their workplace culture, and the effectiveness of their teams. Also, I help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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Categories: Leadership


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