A bit of speechifying I did a few years back on the subject of motivation:

Photo by Olenka Sergienko from Pexels

How do we stay motivated?

How do we stay motivated in the face of long hours, lousy shifts, hard work, thankless tasks? Or worse, when sometimes it seems like life is actively working to demotivate us. I mean motivation beyond just getting paid, and putting bread on the table. Because psychology tells us that once we earn a certain amount of money, once we have food in our bellies and a roof over our head and can afford a few of the pleasures that life has to offer, then money no longer motivates us. Beyond a certain point it doesn’t matter how much more money you throw at someone, it’s not going to make them work any harder.

So here’s a little story about how I personally address the question of motivation.

The other day a friend came into my office and said, “I hear it’s your birthday and you seem a little depressed. Is it because you’re getting old?”

I said, “No! I like birthdays. I get breakfast in bed and I get to buy myself a present and me and the family make a big day out of it. And who’s getting old? Not me! I’d rather get old than the alternative. I know people who never got the chance to get old. I will only start to feel old when I actually am old.”

So my friend said, “I heard that one of the ways you’re celebrating your birthday is by getting a colonoscopy. Is that why you’re depressed?” And it was true, I was getting a colonoscopy a couple of days after my birthday, but that did not depress me. That’s preventative maintenance, and we all know how important that is.

No, I was depressed because at a meeting the day before someone important had made a cutting remark at my expense. I had said something stupid and I was called on it and made to feel stupid and look stupid in front of everyone present. And in that instant I was, completely and utterly, demoralized. Demotivated.

Cause here’s the thing. Since the last quarter my department has dealt with, and resolved, massive problems. We have upgraded and expanded important systems. We have prepared extensively for the Olympics, setting up equipment, testing infrastructure. We launched a documentation committee to figure out how to retain and make long term documentation available. I personally worked ten, eleven hour days for an entire month. I deal with one hundred to one hundred and fifty emails a day and then go home and work another hour or two to get caught up. I get called in the middle of the night. I work weekends. I turned my life upside down, as many here have, to work shifts during the Olympics.

And what do I get for all that? Humiliated in a public forum in front of my colleagues. Actively demotivated.

Maybe I’m over sensitive. It doesn’t matter. I don’t mean to dwell on it other than to use it as a teachable moment.

So the question I’m posing is, how do we stay motivated in the face of that kind of nonsense? And everything else actively working to demotivate us? Why even bother?  Why not just give up, start phoning it in, dial back the effort, the long hours, the passion that brought us here in the first place? Cause operationally there is definitely a need for us to remain motivated. There’s so much left to do. For my department, we’ve got a system expansions, system rollouts, unresolved technical issues, new systems to implement, virtualization, tons of training to organize. We cannot afford to be demoralized.

Here’s the answer I came up with for myself. We stay motivated for ourselves. If we do not stay motivated, we are cheating ourselves. We’re letting the bad guys win, the bullies, or whatever other forces might be grinding us down. I know people who continue to do a good job despite being dealt bad hands. They don’t always get the training opportunities. They don’t always get the praise. They don’t always get the promotions. But they continue to excel. Many of them are in this room. Many of them are you.

Why? Partially because it’s their nature. They can’t stand the thought of performing poorly. They couldn’t live with themselves, couldn’t look themselves in the mirror. But also, they know on some level that it’s the smart thing to do.

I have heard intelligence defined as the ability to maximize options. Limiting your options, that’s dumb. Maximizing your options, that’s smart. Allow yourself to become demotivated, demoralized, and people might start to look at you and say, well, I don’t know what happened to them, but they’ve clearly checked out. We can’t give him or her that opportunity because they won’t do anything with it.

Or worse, I know someone who got dealt a bad hand and took it out on everyone around them until finally he was frog marched out the door. This person later called me and asked for a reference. I told him I would give him a reference, but if I got called, I would tell the truth. This person had seriously limited their options.

Finally, I don’t mean to hand the responsibility entirely back to you. Yes, you are ultimately responsible for your own state of mind and your own conduct. But as a leader, it’s my job to help keep you positive. Here’s a quote I like from someone who used to work here. She’s not here anymore, but I think her opinion is still valid.       

I’ve never slammed a door. I’ve never, ever yelled at anyone at work. I would never let my mood infiltrate the room. Working my way up from assistant I think taught me how unfair it was when others got subjected to bad behaviour through a mood of a leader. I said I would never want to be the boss people knew was having a bad day.

Kirstine Stewart. Twitter Canada’s Managing Director. Quoted in Flare magazine.

You will never hear a cutting remark from me designed to make you feel bad. If there’s something about your performance that you need to know, I will tell you, but I will do so discretely. In a way that, if at all possible, will leave you motivated to do a better job. And with that will come those opportunities. That promotion you’ve been bucking for.

In other words, options.

Which will be good for both you and the company.