I’m going to tell you a story about motivating employees and what’s inside the mind of an employee who is motivated, regardless of the job.
I was in college and had always worked so hard I think I just sort of emotionally burned myself out. I’d study, study, study – exam… study, study, study – exam… study, study… you get the idea. I was at the State University of New York at Stonybrook where most of the people didn’t do study, study, study – exams. They did smoke pot, smoke pot, smoke pot – protest… stuff like that. Maybe that broke up the monotony for them; and maybe I should’ve participated, but I did not.
So I was kind of burned out and looking for something to do for the summer and I applied for a job to teach at a school for handicapped kids, but it was also a place where they rehabbed adults. Part of my training was to work alongside the people who were in there. I was placed with a guy in his early 40s who had been an athlete, but was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident and he was in a wheelchair.
My assignment for the whole week was to sit with him, work with him and do what he had to do. And you know what he had to do? Little transistor thingies had to be bent on each end so they could be soldered on to something. So, we bent wires. There I was, capable, energetic, educated, sitting there bending little wires on to resistors with this very nice guy bored out of my gourd, annoyed, and feeling like I was wasting my time.
I’m a type-A personality – I’m a racehorse; I’m not a plow horse, so this was just awful. Of course, by now you’ve realized I was totally thinking about myself only. Totally. At one point, in my stupidity, I said out loud, “This is so boring!” And then the second it came out of my mouth, I realized this is what this guy had to do and I had just dissed the hell out of it. What was wrong with me? I was so embarrassed. And I immediately said, “I’m so sorry.”
He was so nice about it and so patient. He taught me a huge lesson I’ve used my whole life. He said, “That’s one way of looking at it.” And then he started to talk about all the things that he had done in his life, like being a type-A personality athlete, a racehorse (not a plow horse), and then he got zapped and had to find some kind of labor he could do. And I felt sick… absolutely sick to my gut. You know how immediately you feel nauseated? That’s where I was.
And he said, “Let me explain something to you. This is, on its own, a very boring task. However, the ‘suits’ in the front office project how many of these can be prepared, how many different sizes, in what amount of time per day.” He went on, “I found out their projections, and then I figured a way to surpass them.” I looked at him in amazement. What a brilliant guy. Because there are two ways to look at it:
1. This is an incredibly boring thing for a human being to do; a machine ought to be doing this.
2. A machine can’t get motivated. A machine can’t motivate itself; it’s limited by physics and human beings aren’t.
So I looked at him and I went, “Really? Okay. So, how many of these, those and the other things do they think we can do today?” He got out a piece of paper, “This is the quota.” I said, “All right. If we’re working together, how can we make this go faster?” And the two of us sat there and figured out how to almost double the productivity. And we were laughing and having a grand ol’ time and I was never bored again. At the end of the week, when I had to leave him, we gave each other big hugs.
Motivation comes from within. That doesn’t mean the environment you’re in doesn’t matter. It does. There’s some research in Science magazine where they found that during the day there are sort of bio-rhythms at work – for example, between 6 and 9 in the morning we are very happy, but this happiness drops throughout the day until mid-afternoon (siesta time – part of the world is very smart), and then it picks up in late afternoon and peaks again in the evening.
The truth is, if you work in an environment which consists of poor pay, lousy benefits, lousy work conditions, demeaning policies and rules, and bad relationships with coworkers, you’re probably not going to operate at peak performance, yet some people do anyway because they don’t allow the environment to dictate their motivation.
Think about that guy in the wheelchair, an athlete who will never be an athlete again – the environment was okay, nothing much to speak of, but his motivation, commitment and engagement came from within. He felt like he was part of something important and he challenged himself with plans and goals. Challenges increase motivation.
As it turns out, people are not motivated by money as much as everybody thinks. I mean, money is good but it doesn’t motivate people to do better. Sometimes people can get bonuses and raises, but then sit on their haunches, not feeling obligated to put out. So there isn’t necessarily an association. People making modest salaries can be extremely highly motivated because they have pride.
Motivation cannot be imposed. When people call my show and say, “I’m fat, I want to get thin. I want to get fit. Where do I get my motivation?” I tell them it comes from inside. It’s not a mysterious force that comes from somewhere else; it’s a direct result of how you manage yourself. Unfortunately in a lot of families, kids get to go to Disneyland if they finish a project or are paid money for every ‘A’ they get on their report card. This trains kids to not look inside and feel pride in their accomplishments and obligations. Instead of teaching kids to dig down deep for that motivation, they are being taught it should come from the outside, so people procrastinate. They don’t feel like they have to. They have an attitude of, “What’s in it for me?”
To motivate yourself, you have to look for new opportunities, look for new responsibilities, look for new challenges and read about people you admire. When I was a kid growing up, we read books about people who excelled at something and what followed their journey to excellence. Learn from achievers in sports, in arts, business, or the workplace. Learn from their bad qualities too.
Basically it’s a matter of what’s inside you. If you think or say: “I don’t know how to find motivation,” just look in the mirror. It’s there…somewhere.