The Art of Motivation - Barry Johnson


Are you a motivating leader or just managing people to produce outputs? Have you watched Prime Minister’s Question Time where we see political leaders trying to tear one another apart? Do you follow that very negative model, or is your aim to motivate people to enjoy what they do? Do you encourage them, and do they feel better and more motivated when you have spent time with them?

Leaders motivate people. So what is it you have to do to motivate the people in your care, the people producing the outputs from your department? I know, let’s double their pay. That excitement should last a week before fear returns; the fear that they will lose their job because they just can’t produce enough to justify the pay. Oh dear; that didn’t work. Let’s think about it.

If the world around us is constructed on communication, then it stands to reason that what we say, and the way that we say it, might just be key in motivation. But how becomes the question.

In our search for a more relational way of doing things, we were introduced to a process called ‘appreciative enquiry’. It wasn’t a training course or a load of academic literature. It was having a leader who just did it and we learned from what she did. We did however later read the literature and it described it as a method of “exploring and creating life-enhancing possibilities through constructive and collaborative dialogue”. Wow, we were glad that we experienced it, instead of reading it.

Let’s just look at something very simple that she did. She held one to one reviews every few weeks. They weren’t regular, they varied from two to six weeks apart, but they always seemed to be at an appropriate time.

She would start by saying, ‘Okay, tell me what you have been doing.’ Sometimes she was specific and she would pick a particular instance like ‘How did it go with the engineers on the Howlet project?’ ‘Oh, it went okay. They bought in to the shortened time scale.’ ‘That was good.’ She knew this already. ‘What was it you did to persuade them?’ ‘Well I …’ She always seemed to pick the positives. She also looked for the behavior that we used, so we learned from what we did. We learned, I suppose, from recalling what we did. The other thing she didn’t do was tell us what to do, or what we should do. She used to ask us what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. She would sort of say what we had to achieve and then it was up to us. I suppose that was leadership. She gave us respect and she expected that we could do things, she respected that we were adults, and as adults she would respect our decisions. She never used praise, but she did use encouragement: ‘Yes that sounds like a good idea, will you need any help with getting to see Joe Michinson?’ And if the answer was a yes, you knew the next question was, what help? And it would happen. She would ease open doors for us, and we learned how to do that, and on rare occasions she would kick down doors to let us in.

In reality she focused on positives never on negatives, so I suppose we were never problem solving, we were always looking for solutions, so it was positive not negative. So it was never, ‘How are we going to stop such and such?’ It was ‘How are we going to achieve so and so?’ Innovation was often the name of the game.

I suppose we learned some apparently simple things that we observe others not doing. Things like, ask not tell. Appreciating the value of what is, and envisioning what could be. Designing what could be, and then should be, so we could see what will be.

We have applied this thinking in Learning Partners and this is a very happy ship.