When You Want to Light a Fire Under Someone, Stop Using a Flamethrower!

When you’re trying to motivate someone to improve his or her performance or behavior, if your tool of choice is a flamethrower you might just be the one getting burned in the end.

The veins on Jim Reade’s neck looked like a New York City area interstate road map, so I knew he was upset. “I have absolutely HAD IT up to here with this Larry!!! Third f^$@)Z#! time I’m having to correct his mistakes! Well, we’re gonna see about this – just watch me light a fire under his a#$ big enough to see in Alaska!!!” I had this sudden vision of Jim with a flamethrower in his hand as he looked for Larry.

As Jim stormed off, I thought about whether lighting a fire under Larry could get Larry to stop making mistakes in the future. I know Larry… not a bad guy and capable of good work. But lighting a fire? So 1950’s…

Understanding Motivation

Motivation is defined as the reason or reasons that causes someone to want to act or behave in a certain way. It is an internal process for each person , with motivations separated into to categories:

  • Intrinsic motivation is doing something or acting in a particular way because someone finds pleasure or satisfaction in the doing or acting. It is personally rewarding.
  • Extrinsic motivation is doing something or acting in a particular way in order to earn a reward or avoid something unpleasant (like flamethrowers).

In both cases, the individual decides to act or behave a particular way.

The most common myth about motivation is that one person can motivate another person. That would actually be manipulation, something akin to a puppet master pulling strings that cause someone to act, devoid of free will or choice on the part of the puppet.

Managers – like Jim Reade – mistakenly believe that they can motivate their staff when what they are actually doing is creating the environment in which the person chooses to perform or behave. In the case of Jim and Larry, Jim said he would use extrinsic motivation with Larry (i.e., having a fire lit under his backside) to ostensibly have him avoid punishment for making mistakes.

Three most common failed types of extrinsic motivation are:

  • Command and control – I command you, you perform just like a robot what is commanded. In this type of motivation people see themselves as devalued, performing under anxiety-producing conditions.
  • Behaviorism (the carrot and the stick) – this works to a limited degree and only as long as the carrot (the reward) is both desired and is believed to be obtainable, or when there is real fear leading to avoidance of the punishment. Behaviorism as a motivator is temporary at best.
  • Humanism (being very, very nice) – here the implied contract is that you work for me because I am very nice to you. This fails the first time I break the contract, upon which I’ll be seen as manipulative.

What happens to people working under these three methods? Pretty simple:

  • The better employees give up and move to other employers who will use more effective motivational approaches that let them think and use their creativity.
  • The weaker employees give up and stay, finding a way to do the minimum required to avoid negative consequences. The entire workforce becomes disengaged over time, most employees existing in the critter state.

Motivation That Works Perfectly

Can a manager or leader create the right motivational climate for each employee? Absolutely! Here are a number of motivational best practices to employ:

  • Learn each employee’s top five or six motivators. A good way to do this is to gather the team and begin to build a common list of motivators, soliciting input from the team. Once a master list is built, number each of them alphabetically, given his or her unique circumstances.
    • Point out that there are no good or bad, right or wrong motivators, only what works for each individual.
    • Then ask each employee individually to silently use the numbered inventory to identify, prioritize, and list his or her personal top six motivators. Avoid discussing lists until each person has completed his or her list as discussion might influence what someone writes down.
  • Be aware that creating a personal motivator inventory is a snapshot, while life is a movie. What is true at one particular point in time often changes over time. For the person starting a family or buying a house, financial rewards may jump to the top of his or her list for a while. Earn enough money and another motivator replaces it as the top one.
  • Managers can use each person’s primary motivators over the course of how they manage each person in most areas, including whenever the manager is:
    • Teaching knowledge or skills,
    • Setting expectations and goals,
    • Assigning work, tasks, or delegating,
    • Delivering feedback,
    • Coaching, and
    • Correcting performance or behavior.
  • Here are some examples of how a manager can assign work in each person’s individual motivational language. Let’s use Larry and the project work Jim was upset about. Note the assignment is identical each time, but the motivator is dependent upon the primary motivator in play:
    • Motivator (intrinsic): doing meaningful work – “Larry, I want you to know how important this project is, and how much it means to the hundreds of people who will benefit. Think about how you’ll feel when your part of the project is delivered complete and accurate.”
    • Motivator (extrinsic): financial rewards – “Larry, you know that in two month’s we’ll be starting to work on merit increases and annual bonuses. So think about that when you deliver your part of the project complete and accurate. I know you and Amada are buying a house…”
    • Motivator (intrinsic): learning new skills and knowledge – “Larry, I’m excited for you about this project. I know how much you love to learn new things. This particular project will include some uncharted territories, a chance to research and put what you’re learning to use to produce a more accurate and complete result.”
    • Motivator (extrinsic): advancement – “Larry, were you aware that Manuel and Gwenda (two influential leaders) have a personally interested in this project? The last person who did the work you are doing the go round got promoted in part because of what a great job she did. Both Manuel and Gwenda will want to know who made the project successful – and you never know where that might lead.”

Bottom Line

Managers play a pivotal role in helping each employee make their best contribution to the organization. The really effective managers understand how to create the right environment for each employee to perform his or her best work by managing each person in his or her native motivational language. They rarely resort to lighting flamethrowers to do the task.

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

Improving your (or your team’s) management and leadership skills: Leading Through People™. This acclaimed program equips participants in thousands of current and emerging best practices of leadership, hiring, and talent development.

Raising your (or your team’s) selling and sales management effectiveness: B2B Sales Essentials™ (among the 30-plus courses we offer are ones on selling with emotional intelligence and storyselling!)

Conducting a more effective job search: Get a Better Job Faster

I work with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. To find out more, please visit us at www.boyermanagement.com, email us at info@boyermanagement.com, or call us at 215-942-0982.


Latest Leadership Posts


You Got a Job Offer! Now What? Continue Reading


Counterintuitive Life-Changing Principles, Part 5 Continue Reading


The Seven Essential Soft Skills of Highly Effective Salespeople Continue Reading