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The Myth Of Motivation


Was former General Electric CEO Jack Welch a great motivator? If his inspirational leadership
influenced people to do what he wanted them to do, most business people will agree to that characterization. But by those standards so too were Ghengis Kahn, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Osama bi Laden, Abraham, Buddah, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad great motivators.

Yet, in my view, none of those momentous figures motivated anyone. Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammed never motivated anyone? Preposterous! Not preposterous.*

Some useful definitions:

Motive:     A need or desire that causes a person to act (self-motivated act)
Motivate:  To provide with a motive.
Activate:  To make active or more active.
Actualize: To achieve a personal objective. 
Attitude: A settled way of thinking or feeling.
Behavior: The way in which people behave.
Back to the example of Jack Welch, by definition “inspirational leadership” and the ability to “influence” people does not “provide with a motive."

For the purpose of clarity, here are the four absolutes for what follows:

1.  Management can not motivate.
2.  Management can only activate.
3.  Management can not change attitudes.
4.  Management can only change behavior.

Notwithstanding thousands of people I managed, trained (educated), consulted, and/or whom attended my seminars in eighteen countries and 49 states — some convinced I motivated them personally — I never motivated anyone in my life and, as a sales manager, neither have you or will you.

From this point forward I invite you to "argue with the author"— me! On the pretense I’m presenting the above case in court, you play judge and jury and decide if my contentions are absolute or not so absolute? It's your call.

Already I hear someone grumbling, "Those are just your opinions, Giff!" No, they’re not just my opinions, renowned human behaviorists still disagree for/against the ability of managers to motivate.

You might add that I’ve got a lot of nerve engaging in a debate with such credible sources as Peter Drucker, the late guru of management gurus; Warren Bennis, known for his watershed books on leadership; behavioral scientist Abraham Maslo; clinical psychologist Frederick Herzberg; social scientist Douglas McGregor; and John Adair, one of the world's foremost authorities on leadership and leadership development from England…and you would be right. Nonetheless…
Years ago, Bennis defined motivation as communicating a vision others can believe in, then helping people convert that vision into organizational gains. Really? Maybe not. Whether it’s an entire company, a given department, or a small project team, who among us can think of a single vision so universally accepted that said “others” are certain to commit to that vision? All of them? Obviously, Mr. Bennis never managed a radio sales department.

Drucker counseled that if you "Manage by Objectives" (MBO) you motivate by encouraging communication at all levels. What if the communication is miscommunicated? The failure of a vision sent, but not received, is usually the fault of the sender, not the receiver. Wrong words and/or wrongly placed words and/or wrongly expressed words are what miscommunications are all about. Although I managed by a delineation of MBO — MBP: Management By Priorities — I’m at a loss to understand how encouraging communication "provide(s) with a motive."

Maslo, Herzberg, and McGregor — the naysayers in this "Yes You Can Motivate"/"No You Can't Motivate" debate — agree that inasmuch as motivation has to come from the psyche of the individual, motivation in the workplace (as most people think of it in its conventional context) cannot be achieved without first satisfying an individual's higher needs — the want* satisfactions as opposed to basic need satisfactions: oxygen, food, water, shelter, clothing.

John Adair has a different take (his "50-50” rule), a modification of Pareto’s Law (80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes) in which Adair contends the influence of leaders are equal in importance to serving both need and want satisfactions. Some would say Adolf Hitler validates Adair’s philosophy, i.e. infamously ranked among the most powerful rulers in recorded history, the Nazi madman is also perceived to have been a great motivator. Let’s test that axiom in its proper perspective…

ITEM: In effect, following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the psyche of the German people may have influenced the cause of World War II more than Hitler. Dethroned as a world power, the German people were: 1. Bitter over the perceived unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles; 2. Uncertain of their future as a country without  a national identity; 3. Lead by an incompetent and unstable government threatened by Communism; and, 4. Mired in the Great Depression. Consequently, the German people were starved for leadership, any leadership! Hitler provided that with his intoxicating persona, inspiring leadership, and his incendiary oratory. But with the motive-for-change already present in the psyche of the nationalistic populace, metaphorically Hitler was preaching  to the choir.
In fact, there were hundreds of thousands of Germans not so moved by “the little corporal." Beginning with the arrest of Hitler’s political enemies immediately following  his takeover in 1933, 13 of 42 assassination plots to kill Hitler occurred in his first two years as Chancellor,  29 before the U.S. entered the war. In retaliation to the July 20, 1944 bombing of Hitler’s bunker in Rastenberg, East Prussia, 5,000 German officers (unmotivated military officers) were executed. Less than a year later, following the liberation of dozens of concentration camps throughout Europe and the eastern territories, Hitler’s maelstrom of terror ended with Germany’s cities reduced to rubble.
ITEM: Given how few soldiers jump on live grenades to protect their buddies on the field of battle, obviously those who failed to take the same action responded to a different motivation. Assuming they were aware of the danger at the time, what motivation? Since there is no greater interest than self-interest, very likely the instinct to take cover. Either way, whether their response was motivated by instinct or by a conscious decision, their strongest motive was self-motivated.

ITEM: People who succeed in life succeed for only one reason: they can't help themselves. They have to succeed. Where does that commitment come from? It comes from within! In contrast, as an external force, there is nothing a sales manager can do or say to motivate an unmotivated salesperson. It will not take, period. And given the #1 reason radio salespeople fail during  the first year is because they weren’t fully committed to the job in the first place, uncommitted = unmotivated!

ITEM: Keeping with this theme, you didn't get up this morning to fulfill your company's "mission statement," did you? Nor did you get up for your boss or for your salespeople, isn’t that also true? No, you got up for yourself and, hopefully, for whomever is dependent on you. Is it any different for your salespeople? Increasing company sales, elevating the company’s Top Line, and jacking up the company’s Net Value are not the highest aspirations of the individual salespeople on your staff. As a consequence, management needs to come to grips with its limitations.

ITEM: As a sales manager you need to manage your sellers’ behavior, not their attitudes!
Management can change behavior. Management cannot change attitudes. Fact: salespeople will not do what you want them to do, willingly, without their consent. Why? Because whereas you can change behavior with incentives, accountability systems, policies, discipline, etc., the only person who can change your attitude is you! Ditto for your salespeople.

ITEM:  In my ongoing scholarship of human behavior on the street and in the workplace, I came up with the thesis that human beings respond to eighteen predominant personal pressures — the stimuli of atoms that prompt behavior — all conveniently beginning with the letter "P”: • Pain • Pride • Profit • Praise • Power • Passion • Pleasure • Principles • Popularity • Protection • Philosophy • Performance • Participation • Peer Pressure • Partner Pressure • Parental Pressure • Professional Pressure. 

ITEM: Hire self-motivated salespeople and this “Yes You Can Motivate/No You can’t Motivate” debate is moot. And there is the irony. The success of every radio company in business today is totally dependent on its salespeople, yet only an infinitesimally small  percentage of radio operating budgets include an allowance for testing sales applicants. What better way to explain radio’s high turnover of sales personnel other than lousy hiring followed by lousy training? Note: Test finalists only; too expensive and inefficient otherwise.

ITEM: What can a sales manager do? You can train (educate!), influence, challenge, coach, prompt, push, probe, encourage, recognize, inspire, show respect for your salespeople, etc. But to achieve meaningful organizational gains, your real challenge is to activate the trigger mechanism of the self-motivated salespeople on your staff. That is activation, not motivation.


1.  Management cannot motivate. 
2.  Management can only activate.
3.  Management cannot change attitudes. 
4.  Management can change behavior only.

Finally, given how demotivated employees get when they fail to get proper training, salespeople don’t need inspiration, they need information.

I rest my case.


Dave “Giff” Gifford/DGI © 2012

* Needs satisfied by religion and/or religious leaders: the need or desire for absolution, acceptance, belief in a divine creator, belonging, community, communion, discovery, faith, forgiveness, harmony, healing, hope, inspiration, judgment, salvation, security, inclusion, inspiration, life fulfillment, mattering, meaning, nurturing, purpose, rejuvenation, self-acceptance, spiritual expression, spiritual well being, stimulation, support, to be at peace, to believe in something, transcendence, understanding, unconditional love, etc.

Dave Gifford has been helping salespeople and sales managers improve their skills for decades. Visit his website or send a message to Giff at

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