Motivation: What Works?

Blame and criticism are highly overrated as motivators. You already know this. Think about it. When you spent a lot of time trying to correct someone–an employee, your spouse, your parent, your child, anyone–did it work? When someone was blaming and critical of you, did it work? Like most of us, you probably felt the blaming was unfair or inappropriate. The problem is that blaming and criticism don’t inspire us. If you are sensitive, they make you feel small. There is an answer.

Blaming and criticism arise out of frustration. We see that the behavior of another is not what we want, and so we try to blame it away. As I look back on my careers as a teacher, coach, executive, and consultant I can see all of the times I was ineffective as a critic. Blaming and criticism may serve you as a way of venting your frustration, but they don’t get the job done. The result is continuous struggle and/or removing the person from your sight. We stop talking to our child or spouse. We move the troublesome employee to another department or do our best to avoid them. There is a better way.

We tell ourselves that we tried and that we just couldn’t succeed in getting them to change. The problem, of course, is that we were trying to change the wrong person. In fact, we cannot change other people. We can only change ourselves. Our attempts to change others create frustration, stress, and blaming. Relationships become strained and dysfunctional (meaning “not working”). Yet the answer that we thought was in the other person was within us all along.

You may be skeptical at this point. After all, you had good intentions. You knew what the other person needed to do to be more effective or happier. You were right. They were the problem. Yet, the question is still nagging us. Did criticism and blaming work? Was it effective in producing the result you wanted? Be honest. It didn’t work, did it? This doesn’t mean that you blame yourself. Blaming and criticizing yourself doesn’t work any better. What does work?

When we blame or criticize anyone, including ourselves, we are focused on what we don’t want. All of our emotional energy flows into the negative. Most of what we do and say from a blaming mode actually serves to maintain or worsen the situation. We expect people to misbehave, screw up, or fail in some way. We get so emotionally invested in our judgment of their performance that we start needing for them to fail. Their failures reassure us that we were right. Their failures justify our negative opinion. Our focus on what we don’t want helps us to create what we don’t want.

Their failures justify our image of self as good, intelligent, or competent. An example would be the manager who blames and criticizes the employee who doesn’t perform. He’s failing because there is something wrong with him (lazy, not smart, no discipline). It can’t be me; I’m a competent manager. By convincing ourselves about what is wrong with the other person we prevent ourselves from finding new pathways to reaching them. Our judgment becomes an impenetrable wall that blocks us from seeing any possibilities for success.

When we blame, don’t see the other person as real. We fail to consider their needs and concerns, their view of the world. We resist them as people. Their behavior is inconvenient, painful, or disruptive. It gets in the way of me making my goals. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people in the workplace is the lack of respect and consideration they experience at work. They believe that their managers don’t really care about them.

So, what’s the answer? It’s never easy, but it is possible. First we need a vision. You know what you don’t want. What do you want? If this level of performance is not okay–if this behavior is not okay–what is? Clearly state what you want. Clearly tell people what the vision is. Align yourself with that vision. Do you want a workplace (or any other group you are in) where people are treated with care and respect? Do you want a place where people feel good? Do you want peak performance? Whatever you want, be it. Communicate it clearly. Give people specific positive feedback on how they are succeeding. Offer corrective feedback when people fall short. Ask them what they need. Ask for feedback from them on how you are doing at manifesting your vision. Listen and make changes.

Second, always talk to people with care. Don’t get caught up in the ineffective strategy of thinking people don’t deserve your respect. Offer your help. Do all that you can to create processes and relationships that support them in doing well. If they refuse to do well, find out why. Sometimes in the workplace people refuse to improve or change. Don’t judge them for this. Maybe the job isn’t for them. Maybe this organization is not for them. If you can’t help them to change, see if someone else can. If no one can help them to change, help them to go. Refuse to accept chronic behavior that doesn’t fit with the vision.

At the same time, give lots of specific praise for good work. Constantly reinforce people, and never take good work for granted. What you focus on expands. What we reinforce we strengthen. If we constantly focus on appreciating people for successes, we increase our successes.

Listen to the way people talk to each other. Challenge negative comments that are “normal”. Understand the dissatisfaction that is behind the comment, and help people find appropriate ways to address it. Do not accept negative talk as a way of life.

If you want to transform your workplace (or any group you are a part of), you need to be a visionary. You need to be so into your vision that you live it every day. Mistakes are opportunities to make positive corrections, to help people, and to solve problems. Blaming and criticism are like shooting yourself in the foot. Raise your aim to a higher level. See and encourage the best in people. Believe in their ability to add to this vision. Give them the tools and the feedback to help them. Include them in the vision by listening to them; providing direct, honest communication; and treating people with the utmost care and respect.