By Mark Rounds, VP of Corporate Development

Through my career I have witnessed and studied a multitude of employee motivation techniques. When I was an aspiring leader, my mentor told me that I couldn’t motivate anyone; however, I could create an environment where the person was motivated to do the work. Later, I discovered that environment alone was not enough. The environment did not always produce sustainable motivation in the employees. Why? What I have learned is that there is a difference between motivation and movement.

Motivation is defined as a reason for a particular behavior or action, and a willingness to do something. The underlying secret is the reason – or the why – someone is doing something. Understanding why someone does something provides an opportunity to inspire motivation (and not just movement) in the employee.

The simplest way to get someone to do something is to ask. But what if they don’t want to do it? In this case, a supervisor has several choices. The first set of choices are based in positional power and the second set are based in relationship. Positional power tactics include telling, demanding, threatening and incentivizing. The relationship approach employs inquiry, trust and empathy.

Telling or demanding that work be performed most likely results in unwilling movement by the employee. The demand can be reinforced with a physical threat, such as losing one’s job. The supervisor could also use a psychological threat, such as bypassing the worker for a promotion or giving a poor performance review. In each of these cases, the use of positional power is “I am motivated, so you must move.” Herzberg notes this is a negative KITA (kick in the ass). Negative KITA generates movement, but the employee accomplishes the task reluctantly. In this case, people will move when the pain to do something is less than the pain not to do it.

The supervisor may use an incentive, such as a bonus or time off with pay, to motivate the employee. The employee is usually willing to do the work to gain the prize. But what happens when the next urgent matter arises? Will the employee be motivated without an incentive? Most likely, the employee will need another “carrot” to move. Herzberg defines this as a positive KITA, and although this method is more humane than negative KITA, the result is the same: the employee is not intrinsically motivated.

So what is the best way for a person to motivate another? I have found that understanding what the person needs is the best way to motivate them. To know what they need, you have to build a trusting relationship with mutual respect. One of my favorite examples of this was my relationship with Mary an accountant I worked with previously. All of the managers feared Mary because she was demanding, grouchy, and obstinate.

When I first met Mary, she toughly explained that she always had to do the project manager’s work when it came to pay requests. She never received the right information at the right time, which made her job seemingly impossible. I asked her what she needed and when it was due. I then provided the information accordingly. For the first few months, she complained that I didn’t do it right. I asked her to show me how she wanted the information, and then I followed her instructions. She started to respect me because I showed her respect. She remained grouchy with me, I think more for appearance than for need, but I slowly broke down that barrier.

One day I needed a favor from Mary. I humbly approached her and asked if she could help me. She was delighted to do so. The other managers could not believe Mary helped me. They complained that Mary was playing favorites and I was sucking up. My response was simple, others may think it is sucking up, but I believed we had a professional relationship built on trust and understanding.

Edgar Schein in his book Humble Inquiry describes this as “here-and-now humility.” This type of humility is based in relationship with understanding and empathy. Mary was motivated to help me in my time of need because she knew I cared for her needs. My role was to make her job easier by giving her what she needed, when she needed it, and in the format that suited her best. In return, she was motivated to help me with a simple ask, not a threat nor an incentive. Although I was higher than her in position, I used humility instead of positional power to motivate her.

My mentor was correct, the leader must create the environment where the employee is motivated to do the work. The environment must be built on trusted relationships that are positive, with understanding and empathy.


Herzberg, F. One more time: How do you motivate employees? Harvard Business Review, Sep-Oct 1987

Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry