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Positive or Negative Motivation — Which Works Best?

In our drive to get the best results out of the people we manage or teach or coach or parent, we may adopt methods that appeal to our fundamental need to control outcomes.

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I was recently talking with a family friend about business and managing others, and the challenges business leaders face with managing sales staff in particular.

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My friend said he’d just come down hard on one of his sales reps, pressuring him to step up his game and get his act together. This rep had been making his numbers but wasn’t necessarily putting his full effort into his work. 

This friend thought his tough love was the best way to reach this guy and motivate him to boost his efforts. I left thinking that if I’d been the one he was yelling at, I’d have just been upset for a few days and then a little mad, not necessarily motivated to try harder — possibly more likely motivated to find a job somewhere else instead. But that’s me. I’m motivated by positivity, encouragement and inspiration. I’d also like to think that that’s how I motivate those on my teams. 

That doesn’t mean I go easy on them, but I want my people to know that I expect the best. We hired smart, capable sales reps, but needless to say, the world of selling magazine advertising has changed considerably since I got into it almost 20 years ago. We’ve gone from selling a print magazine to multiple magazines, e-newsletters, websites, supplements and more. It can get overwhelming and that leads to more challenges to motivate the team members when they’re down. 

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We want to try to control what they’re doing, but instead we may need a different approach.  

In his book, Extraordinary Influence: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others, Dr. Tim Irwin said, “In our drive to get the best results out of the people we manage or teach or coach or parent, we may adopt methods that appeal to our fundamental need to control outcomes. A question that should keep us up at night is whether there is a way to transform those we lead so that they are internally motivated to achieve excellence without all that brash fanfare. No one who’s been a leader believes it’s easy to get someone to change.”

Irwin’s book dives into neurobiological research that addresses employees’ emotional side, which heavily influences their performance. Among the tactics he discusses are affirmations. This quote has resonated with me:

“The most powerful personal affirmation occurs when another person acknowledges the strength of our character.”

How do you think an employee feels after his or her manager compliments them on their character? I would think they’d walk away feeling motivated to live up to that accolade. 

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“When someone of significance affirms us particularly in a deep way, certain beliefs are formed,” Irwin said. “These beliefs are stored in our core — that person living inside us who thinks, feels, forms opinions, and quietly speaks to us. As opportunities and circumstances occur, beliefs direct our actions. Research has shown that affirmation from others whom we respect forms beliefs in our core that guide our actions.”

I’m going to try to keep that quote at left top of mind as I manage my team through our next selling season. I’ll let you know how it goes. 

I’d love to hear about how you bring out the best in your employees. Send me an email or leave me a voicemail.

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