You Can’t Motivate People

I’m sitting on my balcony on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking Miami Beach thinking about motivation. Specifically, mine. I’m deep into writing the first draft of Startup Communities and – with Amy – decided to plant myself in a warm place for two weeks as I finished up this draft.

We got here late Monday night. Today is the first day I wrote any words on the book. I procrastinated as long as I could and finally opened up the doc in Scrivener and started writing after my run today. I pounded out a solid hour of writing before shifting gears, responding to some email, and writing a few blog posts. I know that I can only productively write for a max of four hours a day before my writing turns into total crap so I’ll be happy with another hour today. I’ll then consider myself fully in gear for four hours tomorrow.

While I was on my run, my mind drifted to motivation. I kept repeating one of my favorite lines – “you can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated.” I’m pretty sure I heard that for the first time from Dan Grace when we were both working with the Kauffman Foundation in the 1990’s and it has stuck with me.

It felt particularly relevant today. There is no external force “motivating me” to write this book. I’m doing it because I want to, find it interesting, challenging, and think it’ll be a useful thing for the world. It’s a cop-out to say I’m “self-motivated” especially since my run on the beach capped off two full days of procrastination where I kept very busy on other work, but didn’t do the specific thing I came here to do. After two days in the environment that I needed to be motivated, I finally settled down and started doing the real work I had come here to do.

If you generalize this, it plays out over and over again every day. The great entrepreneurs I know work incredibly hard at creating environments that are motivating. They don’t pound away at the specific task of “motivating people”, rather they pay attention to creating context, removing barriers, being supportive, putting the right people in the room, and leading by doing. All of these things create a context in which people are motivated.

It could be as simple as a warm day on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking the beach, which I know is an ideal place for me to write. Or it could be an awesome office environment with incredibly challenging problems. Or it could be a set of people who are amazing to spend time with. In any case, the context is the driver of motivation.

Ponder that the next time someone asks “what do I need to do to motivate you?” Or, more importantly, consider it the next time you are about to ask someone “what do I need to do to motivate you?” The answer might surprise you.

  • This is super relevant to me, right now.

    • Modified to what I think is back to normal. There must have been a setting change I missed.

      • thnx.  Not a big deal, but an obv diff.

        • Does it look better now?

          • with your banner in blue, it’s easier to find your comments + replies.  I like that.

            I don’t much like the ‘click for more comments’, as your posts tend to get lots + thus I have to click a lot to see the whole conversation.

            Perhaps up the default to show more comments (maybe 30) per page?

          • spoke too soon – the number of comments is already back to all (or a large number).  thnx

          • It should be showing up to 80 now.

  • Greg Lems

    Reminds me of this post from Chuck Close:

    “The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.” – Chuck Close 

    • Wow – awesome quote!



      • something to be said for right place right time tho 
        but need to be able to somehow see or make opportunity if i were born into social media with no quantification i just would not be complete

    • i am a poster child for working with no direction no understaning- and actually against my will practically :_) – but i was determined not to fail but to figure it out and win …massive pot holes and sucks times ensue.

    • Darius

      Great quote – In every case where I hear people (including myself) not doing what they are supposed to do and use inspiration as the reason it is being used as an excuse.  Goes to Brad’s point that you can not really motivate anyone, however if someone is lacking the will to perform any work you can only play with the surroundings and indirect means for so long – very soon this will become a job for you.

      Competition also works a a great motivator that can have long term impact – on the other hand fear is a good motivator as well but short term.

  • per

    And yet extrinsic motivational behavior exist and is being used via gaming mechanics to get ppl to reach an endgoal, like managing your health better via 😉

    • I’m not sure that is in conflict with this post. I’ll have to ponder it more. When I think of my running, my coach is motivating me, but he’s providing me structure that causes me to be motivated. The Fitbit – and Fitbit data – seems similar to me.

      • per

        True – look at the Fogg behavioral model with motivation, ability and triggers. The ability speaks to your context and without them even extrinsic motivators fall flat.

    • well they go together. you want a customer? you advertise. you win them over? they come of their own accord.

      • per

        And no-one has ever bought anything due to peer-pressure and external motivators? Don’t confuse consumption with motivation.

        • not an absolute – take a layers multichannel approach . does anyone actually stay their target audiences?

  • This is a very interesting article.  I think that the definition of being motivated is different for every person.  The line that strikes me in the article is “great entrepreneurs I know work incredibly hard at creating environments that are motivating.” As you state, People that succeed create motivating environments, rather than go at a specific task. Motivation for you could mean that you procrastinated for two days in the environment you needed to be motivated and then you went to work, but for some other person it means to be motivated and doing something productive at every second of the day. This is why I think the trait of motivation is specific to each individual.

    • Wow – awesome quote.

    • Absolutely – there is no “generic” motivation. And that’s part of why I don’t think one person can motivate another. It’s hard enough to know what makes us tick, let along figure out how to get us to tick a certain way.

  • Anonymous

    This reminded me of Herzberg’s 2 factors; incentives and motivators. You can incentivise people to perform with pay and bonuses, but motivation comes from addressing what they need to feel from working. You create the context for their motivation.

    • my POV 
      people will be more motivates and take ownership when they are paid FOR performance not to show up. paycheck collectors are just not compatible with my world paying fairly is a tanginble sign of respect for contributing to the org’s progress

  • Great post. I’m writing some longer, more editorial pieces for the TechStars blog lately and find that writing only flows well for me in the morning. I’ve been talking myself out of writer’s block and the writing motivation rut almost daily this week, always in the afternoon.

    Just finished reading On Writing, by Stephen King. It’s excellent. He says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I tend to agree and have been tackling a few books every week.

    • i think that approach works for many. I have a neighbor who is a bigger and author. she is deeply iknsughtful, brave, personal, honest. she (i think) has a community of readers – like students & therapy clients kinda – who share their innards too. it is lovely to behold. 

      me – i am missing my fiction button and actual y my – as many view i think – my polite chip. i just cannot be inauthentic to a fault most 🙂 
      I have a visceral reaction.

      never mins sorry 

      i read when it moves me. i write when ut moves. me, i write in a style i ha e been beta testing that is to date unintelligible, any one read james frey? stream of consciousness meets silly analogies meets conspiracy rheroay etc. anyway 
      to each he own 

      some are proces some  – ?

  • Michaelb

    Brad, timely post – just saw matt kelly again at eo dc last night – best take away was the idea of hiring a “dream manager” or even just authentically asking all your employees what their dreams are and how you can reinforce their pursuit can build rapport, motivation, and energy.  

  • Bernie Daina

    Right – can’t motivate others.  But can you can leverage others’ self-motivation & set up the work condition where they’ll be motivated.

    Bernie Daina, PhD
    Org Psych

  • Bob Hampe

    Well Done and right on point.  One of my favourite subjects.

  • Mike Greczyn

    I think circumstances can definitely motivate people.  In the Air Force, squadron readiness rates tend to increase dramatically as the force swings from a peacetime to a wartime mission.  Hangar queens suddenly become mission-ready airframes as people check, re-check and triple-check.  Mistakes become less frequent, people become more focused.  In business this might be analogous to an all-hands-on-deck effort to complete a project or ship a product.  It’s a time-limited thing, though.  You can’t keep people on a knife edge forever or they’ll adjust to it as the new normal and performance will slide.

    • I agree that circumstances motivate people. This is consistent with the point I am trying to make. The context matters. And leaders drive the context.

  • You know Brad.. I really do have a problem with the use of ‘motivation’. And I just blogged about it last week on ‘The problem with Motivation’ –

    I see motivation as extrinsic (like a bath) and inspiration as intrinsic (like meditation).

    Motivation is answer focused – we seek or throw answers – that book, that movie etc.
    Inspiration is more question focused – i.e. asking the ‘why’ and figuring out or drawing energy from purpose.

    You seem inspired to write your book. When the fire is lit within, extrinsic stuff almost doesn’t matter.

    When it isn’t and you are doing your taxes for example, as inspired as you may be to do a great job, you may need motivation or a boost to get it over with..

    (Long rant.. pet topic!)

    • Agree with the need for motivation. But – where does it come from?

      • I didn’t quite understand what the ‘it’ refers to in your question, sorry. You mean where does the need for motivation come from??

        • “It” is the motivation

          • With both motivation and inspiration, I guess I’ve found (in limited experience) that it really is a case of ‘to each his/her own’ simply because it relates to where we find energy.

            That said, I guess we typically find energy from 3 things..

            1. Nature: Seas, mountains, amazing views, hikes, walks..

            2. People: Energetic ones..

            3. Hobbies/leisure: Instruments, movies, books and the like..

        • Maslow’s HJierarchy of Needs is a conceptual framework. We are motivated by things we do not fully understand. Not all motivation is expressed in “progress” or “successes” … I think motivation is primitive speaking a desire to resolve inner conflict/discord – to find something that is missing – to reach a state of peace. some times peace is contentment. 
          sometimes peace is love. sometimes in the search things happen and you have a course correction. 

          point – it cannot be taught or framed or programmed and it certainly is not universal. very individual  and varied jn source and resolution (if)

           (sorry to be squishy)



        • to some degree but for me…many reasons pedonsal and otherwise

  • I’m hoping digital hypnosis works in motivation…

  • Having a mission & vision in mind and wanting to see them come through is the strongest motivating element for me.

    You cannot always choose or like your context, and it could become an excuse if you don’t like it. I would decouple it as a source of motivation.

    If you are motivated and obsessed about something, you can do it looking at waves, the mountains, trees or office buildings.

    • Absolutely correct.

      • That said, I’m a sucker for getting inspired by looking at the ocean or the mountains. Each have majestic properties that just get into your mind somehow, and it’s never boring.

        • ditto – visited the pacifc recency and what struck me nearly immediately was the repetition of the waves lapping the sand. and it was so simple but … i just was “and the never stop, and no one is making them” and it was just … ? kind of puzzling and impressive.

          • Indeed. There’s an old song from Alain Barriere “et je reste des heures a regarder la mer…”

  • Dan F.

    This is interesting because I was having a conversation with a friend the other week about questions he is being asked on phone screens.   He said he never likes the following question because he is never sure which way to answer as different companies react in different ways.  The question is: how do you motivate under performers?  He said that in his mind he is thinking–the top performers are self motivated and the under performers need to be fired at some point.  We both agreed on the self motivated part and I said that in reality, getting others working smarter probably has to do with 3 main areas: the environment created for them, the skill sets they have and finally outside personal issues.  If they are happy at work, have the skills but are not performing at a high level, something else is going on.  I thought about it afterwards and realized that for my start-up, it starts with hiring the right type of motivated person and then building the context for them.   It is easy to see if people are having issues and address them, removing any barriers or modifying on the fly.   For larger and more established corporations, it is much harder to build a context or environment that suits everyone; large corporations don’t bend easily and don’t always let their managers change the context for specific people….     

    • I like his interview answer – fire the underperformed. That’ll help him filter out the organizations he doesn’t want to work for – if they reject him for that answer he won’t want to work there anyway.

  • Great post. Really helped with the way I think about this topic. 

    A detailed quibble though – if most of motivating is about creating context – ie not focusing directly on the person, then being supportive is surely a little different?

    Taking time to support someone is directly motivating them. Certainly failing to be supportive can be directly de-motivating.

    • Very true. I put this in the same category, but the nuance is important. It’s actually quite easy to DEMOTIVATE people.



  • Barbara Tien

    Delightful characterization.  I do believe it’s a pretty basic concept in human behavior.  

    Maria Montessori was a scientist and doctor who observed this behavior in children.  It inspired her to design a revolution in education around the idea of a “prepared environment” for learning.  She talked about six principles (all in the context of preparing a child’s environment for learning): 


    Structure and order


    Nature and reality

    Social environment

    Intellectual environment

    Building a company (or to your effort, a community) and creating an context that motivates people to produce great things isn’t really all that different, now is it?  Now get out there and stare at the beauty of the waves.  You just might find some more motivation. Looking forward to the product of your work.

  • janianventures

    Great post! Reminds me of when I had been struggling with some employees when I was managing a large bank. One of my mentors gave me some sage advice. He said, “you want to get your team to be committed rather than compliant.” That sticks with me to this day, and I couple it with how I know I like to be managed, given some direction as well as autonomy in a good balanced mixed. Not everyone will have the same drive and passion, which is hard to swallow.



  • hmm. Agree but to add – there are people that are motivated by factors many take of granted. or are seen as … not lofty enough? or are very complex and personal. I fell into my career and struggled for a while with true motivation that resonated with me. then is clicked. I am so on fire… I am on a mission. And I know I can do some great things. I have more than a career …I just need to find an open window. I will not rest. And I will not be intimidated.

  • Motivation is getting finished (started) doing one thing, so you can get started (finished) with another.

    Busy “doing” today, love the topic and it’s close to my lifestyle metamorphosis 2.5 years in the making. There are few drives that can be compared to self interest.

    • actually there are none that compare. self-preservation at base.
      you can do good for you & others at same time – efficient too
      just do not lie to yourself first
      win win – nothing is zero sum

  • if you have a mission that you belief a certain kind of motivation is required for success.. get to know your team. what motivates them will reveal itself, as so many pf us bumble alojng for far too kong, confused but thrashing – until our eyes are opened. 

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