BOOK EXCERPT: Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does


Susan Fowler is going to turn on its head everything you thought you knew about motivating people. She can sum it up in one sentence: you can’t. But you can help them to motivate themselves.

Once again, the Ken Blanchard Organization has put forward one of its finest, with cutting-edge leadership, and the research to back it up. Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging clearly outlines a spectrum of motivation—from disinterested to imposed, to aligned, to inherent—all along the twin axes that considers both psychological needs and self-regulation, and provides clear coaching to leaders to facilitate people to move along that path.

A key insight offered by Fowler is that “motivation” is not “on” or “off.” “One of the primary reasons motivating people doesn’t work is our naïve assumption that motivation is something a person has or doesn’t have. This leads to the erroneous conclusion that the more motivation a person has, the more likely she will achieve her goals and be successful. When it comes to motivation, assuming that more is better is too simplistic and even unwise.  As with friends, it isn’t how many friends you have; it is the quality and types of friendships that matter,” she writes.

Fowler goes on to discuss insights into the true nature of human motivation, which includes a particularly interesting chapter on “The Danger of Drive,” which presents alternatives to driving for results that actually leads to better results! Her straight forward approach to considering motivation as a skill sounds almost too simple to be effective, but it includes a very conscious “pause and reflect” moment that we know is often missing—to our detriment—in the work toward sustainable development in our western quest for almighty efficiency.

She concludes the profound—but easy—read by re-thinking five beliefs which she asserts erodes workplace motivation:



It’s not personal; it’s just business.

If it is business, it’s personal.
The purpose of business is to make money. The purpose of business is to serve—both your people and your customers.  Profit is the by-product of doing both of those well.
Leaders are in a position of power. Leaders are in a position of creating a workplace where people are more likely to be self-motivated and succeed.
The only thing that really matters is results. What really matters is not just the results people achieve buy why and how people achieve them.
If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.

If you cannot measure it, it’s probably really, really important.

Motivation—it’s not something you can do or for people.  It’s something the best leaders enable individuals to find for themselves.

Read an excerpt from Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does below:

The MVPs of Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the mechanism for countering the emotional triggers and distractions that tend to undermine our psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (ARC). People need high-quality self-regulation to help manage their workplace experiences if they ever hope to have an optimal motivational outlook. Three potent techniques promote high-quality self-regulation—mindfulness, values, and purpose. These are the MVPs of self-regulation.

Mindfulness: The first MVP of self-regulation Mindfulness is noticing—being aware and attuned to what is happening in the present moment without judgment or an automatic reaction. It is a state of being but is also a skill that requires development through practice and patience.

People express mindless reactions differently. Some convey anger, frustration, or self-righteous indignation by yelling, ranting, or bullying and others by going silent, being passive-aggressive, or avoiding the person or situation that seems most responsible for thwarting their psychological needs.

When we are not mindful, we tend to react with typical behavior patterns—many of which we are born with or have acquired unconsciously through life experience—or uncontrolled emotions when we feel

  •  We are pressured or lack control over a person or situation (an absence of autonomy)
  •  A person or organization has disappointed us or let us down (an absence of relatedness)
  • We don’t have the ability to cope effectively with the person or situation (an absence of competence)

Mindfulness, however, provides a view of reality without the filters, self-centered thoughts, and historical conditioning that tint your outlook.

When people are not in control of their reactions, their lack of mindfulness reflects low-quality self-regulation. The result is one of the three suboptimal motivational outlooks:

  • Disinterested—People disengage because they are overwhelmed but not thoughtfully or through conscious choice; they are unable to link the activity with values or anything  meaningful.
  • External—They revel in the power they exert, stimulated by their status over others or controlled by an external reward or incentive.
  • Imposed—They feel they have no other choices and there is only one way of dealing with the situation.

Ironically, suboptimal energy can be addictive.  It is also exhausting. The rush of adrenaline generated through self-righteous indignation, the heat of anger, the thrill of the kill in intense competition—they can all fuel a person like junk food. Whether the energy is expressed more inwardly through passive aggression and silent disengagement or more outwardly through frustration or impatience, consider this: the only way to sustain the negative energy is to continue being mad, infuriated, and disappointed in whoever or whatever sparked the negativity in the first place. Sustaining negative energy requires fueling negative energy. It is no way to live.

My wish for people as they explore mindfulness is to discover how suboptimal motivational outlook energy pales in comparison to the energy generated in an optimal motivational outlook.

Mindfulness and ARC are directly linked. The high-quality self-regulation that comes from mindfulness is highly relevant to a person’s motivational outlook. Kirk Warren Brown, a leading mindfulness researcher, reports on how mindfulness links to a direct experience of psychological needs. In other words, when people are mindful, it is almost impossible for them not to experience ARC. The neuroscience of mindfulness is fascinating. Brain scans show that mindfulness and the experience of ARC activate the same part of your brain. The more mindful you are, the more likely you are to satisfy your psychological needs.

A space exists between what is happening to you and the way you react to it. Mindfulness is that space. This is where you can choose how to respond.

Read this article in the print issue

When a person is mindful, she experiences a heightened sense of autonomy because she is not controlled by her own potentially misconstrued and misaligned self-concept based on irrelevant past experiences. In this mindful state, a person is better able to experience relatedness because she can be genuinely concerned about another person without self-serving interpretations or prejudice. Mindfulness also enhances her competence because without the knee-jerk response, she has options for making more appropriate choices—she is better able to navigate and master whatever situation she finds herself in.

When people are mired in their prejudiced version of reality, they have fewer options for coping with that reality.

Values: The Second MVP of Self-regulation

Values are premeditated, cognitive standards of what a person considers good or bad, worse, better, or best. Values are enduring beliefs a person has chosen to accept as guidelines for how he works—and lives his life.

Values are at the heart of high-quality self-regulation, yet most individuals have not explored their own work-related values. I find this ironic. If you stop people in the hallway at work and ask them to list their organization’s values, purpose, or mission statement, chances are they will come close. Today, promoting organizational values and purpose is an accepted business practice. This is a good thing. However, we cannot stop there. Individuals need to identify, develop, clarify, declare, and operationalize their own work-related values and purpose—and then determine how they align with the organization’s values.

Employees with clarified values are more likely to experience high-quality self-regulation despite inevitable workplace demands and challenges. But therein lies the problem. First, people need to have developed values! If values are mechanisms for change and good decision making, shouldn’t all individuals in the organization have clarity about their own values—and how they align, or not, with the organization’s?

Developing workplace values for yourself and with your people is worth the investment of time. Linking developed values to a challenging task, goal, or situation activates a shift between a suboptimal motivational outlook and optimal motivational outlook.

A developed value is freely chosen from alternatives, with an understanding of the consequences of the alternatives. It is prized and cherished. It is acted upon over time. An intriguing aspect of values is that developing them tends to be a mindful process that reflects not only what we need to flourish but what others need as well. Acting upon developed values helps us satisfy our psychological needs. To guide your people’s shift to an optimal motivational outlook, help them self-regulate by linking assigned tasks, goals, or projects to their developed values. For you to do that, your people need to have developed values—and to have you as a good role model.

Purpose: The Third MVP of Self-Regulation

Purpose is a deep and meaningful reason for doing something. Purpose is acting with a noble intention—when your actions are infused with social significance.

As consultant and author Dr. Charles Garfield  drove over the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge on his way to work, he heard loud music coming from the tollbooth he was about to enter. He rolled down his window to pay his toll and found a dancing tollbooth operator. “I’m having a party,” the operator declared. Dr. Garfield drove away more joyful than he did most mornings and realized he had just experienced a peak-performing tollbooth operator.

Intrigued, Dr. Garfield followed up and discovered that the young man’s purpose in life was to be a dancer. His coworkers described their booths as “vertical coffins,” but this young man saw it as a stage for performing and his job as an opportunity to dance. He developed a philosophy about his job, created an environment to support his vision, and happened to entertain those he served. Research on peak performers confirms what you might suspect about people who attain high levels of success and sustain it over time. Peak performers are not goal driven. Peak performers are values based and inspired by a noble purpose.

The danger of drive is that it distracts people from what really makes them dance. People are more likely to meet or exceed expectations when they pursue goals within a context of a meaningful purpose. If, for some reason, the dancing tollbooth operator were failing to achieve his goals of collecting correct fees and preventing backups on the bridge, as his manager, you would know the root of the problem: His work-related role, values, and purpose are not synched. However, odds are that this peak performer is achieving both your goals for him and his personal, purpose-based goals for himself.

Employees who have clarified their personal values and vision and integrated them with their organization’s stated values and vision are likely to be living, working, and even dancing purposefully.

Most organizations have a vision, mission, or purpose statement, but few employees have one for their work- related role. This is a lost opportunity and a shame. Without a noble purpose, what is enticing employees away from the daily bombardment of junk foods? Without a higher cause or sense of meaning, why give up those French fries or wait for the promised marshmallow?

Collaborate with your employees to find alignment between their perception of their role-related values and purpose and your perception. Come to conclusions together that meet both their needs and those of the organization. Acting with a noble purpose reflects the highest-quality self-regulation.

Printed from the book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, by Susan Fowler with the permission of Berrett-Koheler Publishers 2014.

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.


  1. Pingback: Must read: Inside The New Global Citizen Fall 2014 Issue

  2. Wonderful post, Laura! The basic tenets of leadership, though interpreted differently in different scenarios, retains its integral value of empowering people to succeed. The parameters of success may mean a multitude of metrics to the corporate world at large. I’ll certainly look up to see if I can get hold of this book here. Cheers from India.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *