I often hear people refer to the high performer in an organization as being motivated. I also hear the opposite in which the person who’s most laid-back as unmotivated. Does labelling people in this way mean the highly motivated person is good, and the unmotivated bad?
 

What’s in a motivation 

 
I once worked for a small software and services company. I remember being challenged by the CEO to add $150,000 in revenue from our existing customer base during the following quarter. The CEO sweetened the goal with a $5,000 personal bonus if I succeed. 
 
Now, I’m sure many of you are cringing at this story already. However, at the time I was clueless to the downside of individual bonuses. This bonus represented about 10% of my annual take-home pay. With a new mortgage and two young kids, I went after the goal.
 
I succeeded in securing the $150,000 in revenue. To achieve this goal, though, I was away from home a lot that quarter. I worked long hours and remember many sleep-deprived nights in hotel rooms. 
 
I was on fire during that quarter. It’s a great example of when you might refer to someone as being motivated.
 
Then, at the end of the quarter, my boss (not the CEO) told me I failed. He went on to explain the $150,000 goal needed to add $150,000 to the bottom line. In other words, after expenses. By this measure, I had failed to deliver on my goal.
 
This conversation with my boss was the start of the end for me with this company. You might say I went from being highly motivated to hardly motivated. I continued to do my best until I left some months later. However, I certainly don’t remember going above or beyond like I had been doing. 
 
I don’t harbour any ill-will towards the management group. In any problem, regardless of who you think might be at fault, I always believe I’m contributing in some way. In this case, perhaps I was so enticed by a sizeable bonus that I didn’t get clear on the conditions which came with the bonus. 
 
This situation was also my greatest lessons about individual performance bonuses in those days. However, that’s a topic for another post.
 

Motivated or unmotivated

 
When you think of this story, what label would put on my actions while going after my goal? Motivated? What about the second half when I only put in enough effort to keep my job until I found a new one? Unmotivated? Demoralized? 
 
Motivation is: 
 
“The reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.” — dictionary.com
 
Given this definition, it says to me that no matter what you’re doing you are motivated.
 
You are motivated regardless of whether you’re working sixteen hour days, or barely enough hours to keep your job. You are also motivated if you sit at home binge-watching a show on Netflix. With everything you do, you are motivated.
 
My story above is more than twenty years old. It has been too many years for me to tell you with certainty what was motivating me. 
 
I assume when I was chasing my bonus I was motivated by the lure of money. Extrinsic motivators like personal bonuses never have the right type of impact. My story is no exception to this fact. 
 
Extrinsic and individual motivators are counter-productive. Individual motivators create conditions which are detrimental to teams, organizations and even individuals.  Did I go after my goal at the expense of those around me, including my family? Perhaps.
 
In the months following this quarter, I no longer went above and beyond for the sake of the company. I knew shortly after being told I wouldn’t get the bonus it was time to move on. I didn’t feel I could trust the management group any longer. Perhaps that wasn’t fair, but it’s the reality of how I felt. 
 
It would be easy to look at my actions in those days and label me as unmotivated. When, in fact, if being motivated means you have a reason to act, I would argue I was highly motivated. My reasons for my actions, or inactions, were based on a couple of key reasons. 
 
I no longer trusted the management of the company. Right, or wrong, I felt lied to and manipulated. The lack of trust motivated me to put in just enough hours to keep my job.
 
My other big reason behind my actions was my goal of finding a new job. I couldn’t stay there any longer. 
 
We always have a reason to act the way we do. We just need to get under the covers to see what is motivating us.
 

In Leadership 

 
I find it painful when I see leaders label their people as good and bad. It comes in the form of phrases like:
 
“<person A> is highly motivated and a superstar.”
“<person B> is lazy, only putting in the minimum amount required.”
“<person C> is dead wood.”
 
If they’re busy it’s doesn’t always mean they’re doing a great job. Likewise, if someone appears stalled and not caring it does not say they are not doing a good job. 
 
What changes when regardless of what they’re doing, you look at everyone as being motivated?
 
Your job as a leader is to help people build clarity into the reasons for being motivated the way they are. A leader creates the conditions for others to succeed. Given this, what conditions can you create to allow their reasons to shift?
 
Coaching skills have been a big leadership topic of late. With a little coaching, you can help the people around you find their reasons for acting the way they are. 
 
It could be you will someone’s motivations no longer align with long-term employment with your organization. That’s not a problem. If they’re not motivated by employment with you, help them find a place where they can succeed.
 
After all, isn’t that what leaders do?