When Motivation Becomes Habit

“Motivation is a lot like showering. It’s useful, but it doesn’t last, so you need to repeat it often.” – Zig Ziglar

I hope their employees are in the habit or they might read this euphemistically. Scary. (Barnes&Noble bathroom)

I hope their employees are in the habit or they might read this euphemistically! (Barnes&Noble bathroom)

I made three very specific commitments for Lent this year. One month later they have all become habits. That should satisfy the “28 day” folks. It really works.

Yes, I was motivated to get started. You need motivation – a feeling that it is no longer optional to move towards your cause, purpose or goal. I was deeply motivated, as a matter of fact, both personally and professionally to break new ground on some long-held beliefs, fears and wants.

Without that energy for a new way forward I can certainly see how the gap between motivation and habit would be very hard to jump. If you don’t have a burning drive that you are ready to be honest about – for me, dependence, capacity and production – then this is not for you. If you do have that drive and you’re hanging back out of fear, it’s time to snap out of it and get moving. Really.

Lent was convenient timing. I happen to be a person of faith and I am grateful for the invitation to dedicate six weeks to renewal, reflection and re-orientation that my church provides. That, of course, is available to us any time and all the time. Lent is just a construct, like everything else we’ve invented.

What’s more accurate and more honest is that I was sick of myself. I was tired of thinking about it, wondering about it, getting frustrated about it, on and on. I was done with that phase and ready for a new one. Maybe Lent was divine intervention, the right opportunity at the right time. I won’t argue that as a very real possibility. It’s also true that, living in the first world as we do, we have choice and I made a decision to exercise mine.

It’s my turn. And it’s your turn, too.

The Best They Can

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The Green Goblins

Everything I read about coaching 8-year-olds in basketball says that the emphasis needs to be on having fun. Those who take the time to write about such things emphasize that a coach’s first and most important job at this level is to help the kids discover their athleticism by making it so much fun that they fall in love with it and can’t wait to come back, next practice, next season, et cetera. Put another way, no one suggests teaching the crossover dribble or the fade away jump shot.

When my daughter, age 9, decided she wanted to play a second season of recreational basketball I responded enthusiastically. Her first season was a steep learning curve – fun but steep – and I couldn’t be sure how she would feel about giving it another try. Flushed with excitement I made a commitment to her that I would be an assistant coach for her team. I noticed the year before that her coach would have benefited from some help and I regret not stepping up to support him. Not so this year. I was ready to pitch in.

What veteran parents of recreational sports will tell you, and about which I was impressively naive, is that there is rarely if ever such a thing as an assistant coach at this level. The parks and rec folks just need coaches, period. When you offer to be an assistant it’s only a matter of time until you’re handed the whistle and clipboard and given a battlefield promotion. I was no exception. Making lemonade from the lemons I hadn’t wanted to pick, I invited my son to help me out and figured that I could not only have an experience coaching my daughter but also the camaraderie of working alongside my son.

Consulting my online coaching resources I mapped out a plan that emphasized fun – lots of running around, lots of games, lots of silliness. Since my technical basketball skills are limited I went with my strength and gave the girls as much positive energy and enthusiasm as I could muster. From the very beginning our coaching approach was a big hit. Thanks to those great suggestions I found the girls laughed their way through “drills” that were cleverly designed to be the building blocks of their athletic development.

I loved basketball as a kid. I played in leagues, with my buddies or just by myself in the front yard. I would stay outside well after dark, shooting free throws for as long as it took to make ten in a row. Reclaiming this childhood passion, pairing it with my aptitude for motivation and inspiration and then channeling the combination to this team was deeply gratifying. Until the games started. And we didn’t win any.

I’m not sure what the formula is for putting teams together at this level but it became evident with each team we faced that we were always going to be smaller, younger and less experienced. And while this could sound like an excuse or even sour grapes it was just the fact of the matter. As the losses piled up I began to question my strategy. I began to question whether or not my focus on learning the fundamentals through fun, energy and enthusiasm was most important after all. I found myself reverting back to well-developed feelings of competitiveness and intensity, exasperation and frustration. When everyone around you seems to be reading from a different script – and getting different results – it can wear after a while. It did with me. As best I could, I kept all of that to myself for the one reason that mattered most: my players didn’t care. The fun strategy was working for them just fine. Since most of these girls were new to basketball they were too concerned with just being on the court much less with winning or losing. They just wanted to play.

After our sixth or seventh game a grandmother of one of the players came up to me and said, “Those girls are just doing the very best they can. There’s nothing more you can ask than that.”

Every week they got better. Every week they got pushed around a little less and asserted themselves a little more. Every week one of them would have an “aha” moment right in the middle of the game. Every week something would “click” and they would understand what is possible, if only for a moment. The pride in their smiles was priceless.

I will never again doubt the multiplying effect of energy and enthusiasm. They are infectious and vital to learning.

And it’s worth remembering that most of the time, most people are doing the best they can.

Don’t Motivate Me, Please

People are internally motivated. The good work of leadership is to tap into that motivation and accelerate, support, deepen and encourage it. I think the biggest leadership mistake is one of getting in the way of what is already there. It is the hubris of thinking that I either have to supply motivation or that my version of it is superior to what someone brings with them. This is classically paternalistic. “That’s nice,” says the well-intentioned leader, “but here’s how it should be.”

So many employees buy into this paternalism because they love the protection it affords. They are making a painful trade-off by accepting someone else’s version of how they should feel, think and believe and only because they are separated by one rung on the pay scale. At best this substitution of perspective is an ill-fitting replacement and at worst it’s deeply corrosive. The courageous leadership move is toward a partnership that is about maximizing what the individual has to offer; what you saw in them in the first place that made you want to hire them.

Leaders control, in my opinion, because the chaos of the individual is just too overwhelming. That is to say, most leaders don’t seem to have the capacity to treat each individual employee as a naturally, uniquely motivated person and figure out how to make the most it. And that capacity doesn’t exist because the leader hasn’t looked within long enough or purposefully enough to discover their own motivation. Ultimately, they just end up repeating the pattern of their experience because they haven’t learned to value and express their personal, internal perspective. Instead, the leader lumps everyone together, expecting them to be “just like me” and thinking that somehow this is going to lead to innovation and value creation.

How can it possibly?

Start within. The courageous step is the one back to yourself.