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7 Motivation Blockers that Could Be Holding You Back

Amanda Sollman


It's easy to find yourself asking, “How do I motivate others?” or “How do I motivate myself?” Especially in our line of work, we hear it all the time – people trying to solve their "motivation problem." There’s just one little problem with that…

You're asking the wrong questions.

Experiencing a sense of motivation for yourself or inspiring that feeling in others can’t start with “How?” It’s a problem that must be addressed at a root cause level –and that means it’s more important to start with “Why?”

Below are seven reasons someone could experience a lack of motivation. As you read through, think of all the ways you could possibly attack these motivation blockers – surprise! It won't be the same strategy every time – tackling motivation takes a customized approach (which I'll get into more next week!).

Want to learn more about motivation? Check out this free ebook about motivating  employees!

7 Motivation Blockers – What are You Facing?

Motivation Blocker 1: A lack of clarity.

Clarity is the sense that we understand what we’re supposed to be doing. Goals, directions and expectations are crystal clear. When we have clarity, there’s no question as to what success is supposed to look like.

And while managers often think employees know what they’re supposed to be doing – you’d be surprised to discover how often this isn’t the case.

If a goal is too vague, if someone doesn’t know what your expectations are, or if directions haven’t been laid out in an easy-to-understand-and-follow fashion, you can bet that there will be procrastination and it could look a lot like a lack of motivation.

Motivation Blocker 2: A lack of certainty or confidence.

For people who study motivation as it relates to psychology, there is an “expectancy-value theory” that suggests a person’s level of motivation is based on three different elements (which Jeff Miller of Cornerstone OnDemand did a great job detailing in this article for Inc.com). These three elements show up in Motivation Blockers 2, 3 and 4, so I’ll start with the first one here.

The first thing expectancy-value theory says motivation is based on is “our expectations of our own abilities.” So, what does that mean?

Simply put, if we don’t believe we have the ability to achieve something, we won’t be motivated to do it. In our training+coaching programs, we refer to this as a lack of certainty – I’m not certain that I have the ability, knowledge or skills to accomplish the thing you’re asking me to do and, therefore, I’m going to avoid it like the plague.

Motivation Blocker 3: The belief that the outcome is out of your control.

The second factor in expectancy-value theory is that motivation depends on “our expectations about our environment.” This means that, even if someone believes they have the skill or knowledge to execute, but the final outcome will happen regardless of what they do, they will be less likely to take the desired action.

For example, if you have a salesperson that’s fully capable of calling on a prospect, putting together a quality proposal and asking for the sale BUT they believe that, no matter what they do, the prospect won’t place an order, that salesperson is more likely to avoid calling on the prospect or putting in extra work on the proposal. In their mind, it doesn’t matter anyways – so why try?

Motivation Blocker 4: You don’t care about the outcome.

The final driver of motivation based on the expectancy-value theory is “how much we value the task at hand.” This means that, in order to be motivated to do something, we have to care about the outcome.

We see this a lot, especially with our corporate clients and especially around one big topic: completing customer relationship management (CRM) system entries.

Here's what usually happens: the marketing department – in combination with senior management and possibly  sales team leaders – decides that collecting information on customers is important and then directs the field salespeople to start logging notes in the CRM on all interactions.

Now, as a former marketing professional, I’m not disagreeing with this strategy at allUnderstanding your customer and the conversations that are going on around your products is incredibly valuable in making strategic business decisions.

But that doesn’t change the fact that salespeople hate it.

Many of the salespeople we work with don’t care if the reports are logged on time, don’t care if they’re thorough and don’t care if they’re punished for not doing them. Sure, their boss and their boss’s boss care about those things – but they don’t. Hence, there’s very little natural motivation to do it.

Motivation Blocker 5: You aren’t being challenged.

I’ve written before about how boredom is a huge killer of employee engagement. The same thing is true when it comes to motivation. Especially in mid- to late-career folks, it can seem as though you’ve done it all and seen it all. There’s nothing new. No surprises. And, as a result, it’s hard to be motivated with the day-to-day tasks that you’ve become used to.

Motivation Blocker 6: Your basic needs aren’t being met.

If you follow our blog or listen to our podcast, chances are you’re familiar with one of our core teaching concepts: The 6 Basic Human Needs. This concept – as well as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs focusing on the basics like food, water, shelter, etc. – is built on one basic notion: in order to experience true fulfillment and satisfaction, we must have our basic needs met. If those needs aren’t satisfied, it’s like trying to build a house with no foundation – the thing is all going to fall apart quickly.

Now think about how that could impact motivation:

If I don’t feel as though the work I do is meaningful (basic need: contribution), I’m not motivated to do it.

If I don’t feel that my job is safe because the company is downsizing or going through a merger (basic need: certainty), I’m not motivated to push too hard.

If I don’t feel connected to the people I work with or that I’m just a number in an employee lineup (basic need: connection), I’m not going to be motivated to do what it takes to stick around.

Motivation can only happen when our basic needs are being fulfilled adequately. If they’re not? No bueno.

Motivation Blocker 7: As a manager or organization, you’re pushing the wrong buttons.

The final motivation blocker has to do with how we traditionally try to motivate people. Before we get to that, though, we have to understand a little bit more about motivation – and specifically two different types of motivation.

According to VeryWell.com, intrinsic motivation “refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying to you.” We all know of activities like this where we’re naturally motivated to do them. Often those activities are hobbies or allow us to leverage our strengths. Jeff Miller, in his Inc.com article, also refers to intrinsically motivated people as “learning-oriented.”

By contrast, extrinsic motivation “involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishment.” This is your typical “carrot or stick” approach. Earn a bonus for growing sales. Go on a performance improvement plan (PIP) for consistently underperforming. Miller refers to extrinsically motivated people as “performance-oriented.”

Now that we know the two kinds, think about how you typically take action to motivate people in your organization. For many companies, they lean heavily on extrinsic motivation approaches, like bonuses, commissions, extra PTO days, gift cards – a lot of carrots. However, that may be the wrong button to push.

In some cases, you may be picking the wrong extrinsic motivator. Perhaps the carrot is still good, but instead of money, an employee would prefer an extra vacation day. Or, maybe the employee isn’t motivated by rewards, and you should be using consequences for more effective results.

In other cases, you may be using an extrinsic reward/consequence for something that an employee is intrinsically motivated by – and it could be hurting you. Psychologists refer to this as the “overjustification effect” – the phenomena where “when extrinsic rewards (such as money or prizes) are given for actions that people already find intrinsically rewarding, they will become less internally motivated to pursue those activities in the future.” We often see this when someone chooses to turn their passion or hobby – such as photography or blogging – into a full-time gig…and, all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so fun anymore. You could also see it when older employees enjoy mentoring younger employees, so they’re promoted into a management role. When those responsibilities become more formal, though, they’re less enjoyable.

To put a bow on it

You can’t approach motivation solutions until you understand why someone isn’t motivated currently. If you jump too far ahead, you risk tackling the wrong problem or using an ineffective approach. Next week, I’ll share some ideas for how you can uncover the “why” your employees are dealing with and then what to do with it.

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