Why You Can’t Motivate Other People

May 26, 2015

My husband and I have been entrepreneurs throughout our respective careers. For the most part, entrepreneurs are self-motivated people. We wake each morning without an alarm clock raring to get to work. We love what we do.

Several years ago, we bought into a real estate franchise. You can imagine our surprise when we repeatedly heard that you can’t ask the advisors to do this or that because, after all, they’re independent consultants.

I remember thinking, yes. But, we’re running a business here. How are the advisors to be successful, how are we to be successful, if we don’t build systems of accountability into the business?

I think people often confuse accountability with coercion. If you’ve been in business for more than five minutes, you’ve probably figured out that you can’t coerce or motivate other people into doing something they don’t want to do.

Truth is, everybody is motivated. They just may not be motivated in the direction that you, as a business owner, colleague, spouse, or friend, want them to be motivated.

All this motivation stuff is a bit challenging for someone like me because, well, quite frankly, I’m in the motivation business. I’m either speaking, consulting, or coaching someone to do something that they’re either uncertain about, uncommitted to, or downright resisting.

As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force him to drink. I get it. But, when you’re in business, you can’t keep leading horses to nowhere any more than you can keep changing horses. It’s a waste of time and money to do so.

So, if you can’t motivate other people, what is a business leader to do?

Create Space for Self-Motivation

According to Susan Fowler’s book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work, we can help people understand their motivational outlook and whether or not it’s actually working for them.

Fowler points to three basic elements of motivation that I think are useful for every business owner to consider.


When we have a sense of autonomy, we believe we have choices. Generally speaking, people are motivated by this sense of choice. We like to feel as though we have some control over our own lives.

If you’re in business and have a tendency to micromanage, you’re actually robbing your team of the opportunity to experience autonomy. Micromanagement works as a de-motivator. Do this long enough, and people will leave. Far better to spend your time thinking of better ways for your team to exercise choice of action.


Fowler describes relatedness as our need to feel a connection to others without having to be concerned that they have an ulterior motive. We also have a need to feel that we’re contributing to something greater than ourselves.

When I thought about how this applies to our real estate advisors, I realized that we strive for a consistent message. As business owners, we want our team to feel cared for and supported. We also want them to realize that what they do is far bigger than closing a real estate deal.

For many individuals, the purchase or sale of a home is one of the biggest emotional decisions they’ll ever make. We encourage our advisors to relate to their clients with this very important factor in mind. As business owners, we also work hard to support our advisors through this process of contributing to the best interests of their clients.

Relatedness creates a win-win space of motivation for all concerned parties. The good news is, relatedness doesn’t cost time or money. It only requires presence of mind and a commitment to connect with another human being.


When people experience competency, they are capable of effectively meeting daily challenges, they embody the necessary skills to get the job done, and they feel a sense of growth and accomplishment.

As business leaders, then, it’s our job to create a learning environment that supports personal and professional development. When people are challenged to new horizons, they are happier and more fulfilled.

The three psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence are the essence of motivation. They are also interrelated. Rob your team of any one of these needs, and you unwittingly create an environment that is demotivating and destined for failure. Here’s my challenge to you as a business leader. Examine your policies, processes, and procedures. Do they meet the criteria for the ARC of motivation? If not, what changes can you make to ensure that the basic psychological needs of your people are being met?

Make those changes and watch your business and the people in it come to life.

Resources and References

Fowler, S. (2014). Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.