The Issue with Motivation

man leaning his forehead against concrete building

Act on Principles Not Just on Feeling

THE US TRADITION of motivation can be found in a rehearsal for the movie, Marathon Man with British actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Dustin Hoffman. In the script, Hoffman’s character is supposed to walk from one side of the room to the other. Instead of doing so, Hoffman stops the rehearsal and says, “I don’t know why I’m supposed to do this. What’s my motivation?”

As a method actor, Hoffman was following his training: every action needs an internal motivation. As the story goes, told to me by my acting mentor and friend Jack Clay, the impatient and perturb Olivier turns to the junior American actor and says in a tone and inflection that only the British can do, “You walk across the room my dear boy because the script tells you to.”

In business, we spend a lot of energy trying to motivate others. We create incentives in the form of pay and benefits; cultures in the form of team building and extra perks; workspace in the form of break rooms for impromptu conversations; relaxation in the form of ping-pong tables and espresso cafes. Daniel Pink in his book, Drive, asserts that what science knows business doesn’t do when trying to motivate others. And he subscribes to the notion that people need autonomy, mastery, and purpose to be truly motivated.

I think all of these ideas are great. But sometimes we just don’t feel like doing what needs to be done. We’d rather sleep in, avoid delivering that tough news, procrastinate another day on writing that report, skip a day at the gym, tell yourself you’ll start that diet after Labor Day, avoid fully supporting the team’s decision, or be silent instead of sharing your ideas during a meeting with leadership. Sometimes we are Dustin Hoffman crying out privately, “what’s my motivation?!”

Our actions are more authentic if we’re driven by a deeply felt motivation. Yet, how do we keep ourselves – or stop enabling our employees – from being like Dustin Hoffman when we don’t have the motivation to do something?

I can hear Olivier answer: “Principles my dear boy, principles.” Sometimes we have to do something on principle even though we aren’t motivated. For example:

  • Your team believes it’s important to have “open and honest communication” so, even though you don’t want to, you tell your employee how their performance has fallen short.
  • You say you value the principle of personal health and well-being, so even though you’re tired, you lace up your shoes and go running every morning.
  • Your company says it values collaboration, but while it would be faster for you to make an important decision yourself, you pull your team today and conduct a brainstorming session to get their input.

We should try to encourage ourselves and others to be motivated by how we feel. But we should base our actions and commitments on principles because sometimes how we feel is we just want to go back to bed.

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“I take a simple view of life: keep your eyes open and get on with it.”

– Sir Laurence Olivier