Logic and convincing don’t motivate: an example

If you want to motivate someone, using logic to convince them of what to do often seems like it should work. It rarely does. If the person is already inclined to follow, you don’t need it. If they aren’t you’ll just as likely provoke them to argue back as to follow.
Here’s a story to illustrate.
Context: In college sports (ultimate frisbee), at weekend tournaments we’d play three or four games, leaving us tired, sweaty, dirty, and hungry at the end of the day. After the last game, we’d usually collapse on the sideline of the field where we just played.
The problem: We wanted to shower, change, and eat, and the sooner the better. But we rarely did. That would take driving to the hotel or dorm we stayed in. Instead we’d slowly change our of our cleats on the sideline. It seemed to me as long as we were sitting there, we might as well sit in the vans driving back to the hotel. I saw no advantage in staying on the field.
This was long before I took any leadership classes. Regarding influence and motivation, I had taken writing classes that taught to persuade based on logic and rhetoric, philosophy classes to teach logic, and so on—all academic classes. None taught experientially, nor did they look at low-level skills leadership uses, like how to make people feel understood, one of the top skills to motivate others. I don’t think Columbia College taught any project-based or experiential classes then.
What didn’t work: Based on this “training” I would say to everyone things like, “Hey guys, let’s get in the van. What’s the point in being sweaty, hungry, and tired here? We could shower back at the hotel rooms. Come on, let’s get in the vans.” I could see myself standing between them and the vans, facing them, pointing at the vans.
They never got in the vans. They were tired. They just kept lying there.
One time I asked them why they didn’t just get in since it made so much sense to me to get in.
One teammate, a guy named KJ, said, “Josh, I hear what you’re saying and it makes sense, but something about how you say it makes me not want to do it.”

Lessons learned

Only years later, when I took leadership in business school, did I learn to improve on this style of leadership. Trying to motivate people by convincing them with logic doesn’t work. Motivation means evoking the emotions that lead to the behavior you want. Using logic evokes emotions of debate and argument.
What works: If you want to motivate someone, you’ll do a lot better considering the emotions they feel, the emotions you want them to feel, and how to get from one to the other. That perspective means putting their interests first, sensitivity, and listening. Logic and convincing focuses more on what you communicate to them, rarely an effective place to start. That style of motivation also distances yourself from the people you want to motivate in a me-versus-you dynamic.

What I should have done

If I found myself in a similar situation today, I would start by trying to understand them and make them feel understood. That would mean opening myself to their perspectives and maybe realizing they had a better plan—that is, I might end up taking my time changing too. Looking back now, I wonder if the whole rest of the team did one thing and I wanted to do another, maybe I was the one missing out. Maybe people were connecting and creating team bonds that ruthless efficiency kept me from.
If I understood them and still saw getting in the vans as a better strategy, instead of starting by convincing and pleading, I would start by asking them what they felt like and what they’d most want then. If I sensed a desire to go to the hotel earlier, I’d work with that. If I didn’t sense that desire among anyone, I’d probably not try to lead them by trying to create motivations they didn’t already have and I’d join them.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Miles Moyers

    “That perspective means putting their interests first, sensitivity, and listening”…
    That my friend, is the key to achieving any real and lasting success, both in business and in life. I have been conscientiously focused on putting that perspective into practice for the past couple years.
    I found that sometimes I have to slow or delay my approach to keep within that principle and in the end the connection was solid and much more productive for both of us. I have succeeded in persuading and other times I have been persuaded, but always with positive results.

    1. Joshua

      It’s funny how hard it can be in the moment, despite working out so consistently.
      The same pattern happens in many other areas.
      Like when I’m selling something, the more questions I ask at the beginning to understand their interests, the better things go. Sometimes I jump into pitching first—that is, focusing on my interests first—which never works as effectively.
      In arguments, the more I listen, the faster we resolve the issues. The more I talk, the longer things take. There’s more to conflict resolution than that, but the pattern fits.
      It feels similar to exercise too. Before I work out, I don’t feel like it. After I exercise I’m glad I did. I feel like it’s putting my body’s interests before my mind’s, if that makes sense.
      It feels weird that caring about others first benefits you, but it creates teams and teamwork, and teams outperform individuals.

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