Motivating The Unmotivated

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Some time ago I asked for your help to figure out what to do with the unmotivated. If you’re frustrated in your efforts to elicit the best from each of your subordinates, chances are it’s not that they can’t be motivated, but that the wrong methods are being used to motivate them. 

The secret is to package what you want from each individual in a way that makes them want to deliver for you. There are 7 classic work styles, each of which is motivated differently:  Commanders, who need control; Drifters, who need flexibility; Attackers who need respect; Pleasers who need to be liked; Performers, who need recognition; Avoiders who need security; and Analyticals, who need certainty. Now here’s how to use this knowledge to better motivate your staff.

The “one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach to motivating others won’t work.  Instead, you must customize your methods to each individual you manage.  Doing so will allow you to access the discretionary energy of staff – that which they aren’t required to do, but could do if use these tips to make them want to

Getting into the back-to-school routine can be hard for everyone in the house. In the morning, parents are faced with groggy kids who won’t get out of bed and get ready for school no matter how much you nag, bribe and scold. Homework time can be even worse, with nightly fights and accusations echoing off the walls of your home. So how can you get your child to be more motivated? The important thing to remember is this: your child is motivated—they’re just motivated to resist you. Keep reading to find out how you can turn this negative motivation into a positive one.

Q: When a child becomes unmotivated and won’t get out of bed, do homework or participate in activities, what is he trying to tell the parent through this behavior?

When we’re talking about kids not getting out of bed, not doing their homework or school assignments or not wanting to get involved in family activities, it’s important for parents to realize that there is motivation in the child. But the motivation is to resist. The motivation is to do things their way, not yours, and to retain power.

When people feel powerless, they try to feel powerful by withholding. A child or teenager who feels very powerless will stay in bed, not go to school, avoid homework, sit on the couch and withhold overall involvement because it gives them a sense of being in control. To the parent, the behavior looks completely out of control. But the child sees it as the only way to have power over what’s going on around him.

“You have to have the courage to let him experience the natural consequences of his behavior.”

The child who uses resistance to control lacks both social skills and problem solving skills. It’s important to define the difference between the two. Social skills are how to talk to other people, how to be friendly, how to feel comfortable inside your own skin and how to deal with people’s kindness. Problem solving skills are the skills that help kids figure out what people want from them, how to give it, how to deal with other people’s behavior, expectations and demands. Problem solving skills are needed to help a child handle being criticized in class. Many times the real reason kids don’t want to do their homework is because they’re simply lazy about the work or they don’t want to be criticized in class and held accountable for their work.

Let us  be clear about this point: everyone is motivated. The question is, motivated to do what? If a child looks like he’s not motivated, you have to look at what he’s accomplishing and assume that this is what he’s motivated to do. So part of the solution is getting him to be motivated to do something else. To assume that the child is unmotivated is an ineffective way of looking at it. He is motivated. He’s simply motivated to do nothing. In this case, doing nothing means resisting and holding back to exercise control over you.

You’ll see it when you ask your child a question and he doesn’t answer, but you know he heard you. What’s that all about? That’s a child withholding an answer to feel powerful. When he says, “I don’t have to answer you if I don’t want to,” you see it as a lack of motivation. He sees it as a way to win control over you.

In general, today’s students are likely to be older than the stereotypical 18- or 19-year-old. They are likely to be apprehensive about traditional classrooms — paper and pencil work and “book learning” — and they are likely to perceive themselves as being outsiders when they consider the teacher’s world — my world. They are often uncomfortable with formality. They are often lacking study skills. And they are often struggling to work jobs, raise families, deal with financial responsibilities and limited funds, all while trying to better themselves by going to college.

If all that isn’t enough, coming to college challenges their social identity and shakes their confidence. Many of them come from worlds different from mine and have been shaped by experiences far different from what they face in college. When I think about all that is going on with them socially, psychologically, and economically, it is no surprise that many students do not see my classes as the pivotal point of their existence.

Even knowing all the problems they carry with them, I always wanted to believe that my classes should be something they cherished and to which they would give themselves over. I wanted the best from students. If I could have had my way, they would have come to me as active learners, seeking assistance and insight at every opportunity. They would have thrived on academic challenge, and they would have challenged me to teach better than I have ever taught before. They would have questioned every aspect of their education and sought an understanding of the “how’s” and “why’s” of the factors that touch their curious minds.

Oh, what a wonderful experience that would be … buy, let’s face it, that’s not what most students do. What a disappointment! How easy it is to blame them! And how easy it is to get frustrated … and how easy it is to fall into the belief that they are passive, uninvolved, apolitical airheads. How easy it is to assert that they shun responsibility, that they never question anything that relieves them of responsibility, and that they often drag other students down with them by using their social networks in the classroom to undermine the value of the lessons being presented to the potentially “good” students. How foolish I was to think I would not have to teach them howto learn!

The fact is — as I had to learn the hard way — classrooms don’t have to be deadly, and students who seem unmotivated don’t have to remain in the unmotivated stage for very long. Making a change required a great deal of soul-searching and rethinking on my part. And, most difficult to accept, it required that I accept some of the blame for what I — as a representative of the teaching profession — have been given in my students’ responses to me.

I’ve learned that many of them don’t know that they have the right to ask for anything other than what they are given. For the most part, they are the products of years of experience in schools where they were essentially told to sit down, shut up, listen, and learn – an experience that taught them that the teacher is the source of all knowledge and that learning is something magically injected into them at some point without their awareness. They rejected that voodoo education then, and, I’ve learned, they will reject it again if I push it, even though they struggle with the internal desire to “make it this time” in college.

Contrary to the occasional lounge talk I’ve heard and been part of, students are in college spending their time and money because they want to learn and because they want a better life for themselves. Granted, they often don’t know how to acquire what they want or how to make themselves learn what is presented to them. But, when asked for their opinions (often a new experience for many of them), they express that there are instructional areas that they have strong opinions about.

  • One of the most prominent comments from students regarding what they want from the college experience involves individualized instruction. They all want to have their individual needs met. They want to feel like they are more than part of a crowd, that their individual talents and abilities are respected and deemed worthy.

  • They want teachers who are real people, who recognize them as human beings — teachers who care about them — not just their test performance.

  • They want to be challenged, not decimated.

  • They want caretakers who check on them regularly, who support their individual learning, who inform them individually of their progress, and who assign a variety of tasks that give them the opportunity to learn in modes that fit their individual styles and that are designed to meet their level of learning.

  • They like teachers who talk at their level, who can joke and take a joke, and who let them talk and learn with other students.

  • They like clear, complete explanations and concrete examples, thorough (but brief) explanations of difficult concepts, and opportunities to have their questions answered.

When I think about what students want, I know that classes that deliver the same old message of “sit down, shut up, and listen so that you can memorize facts to dump onto a test sheet” probably are not going to motivate them. It seems clear that students are not necessarily unmotivated or unwilling learners; they are simply uninvolved in the depersonalization of the traditional classroom. They are willing to learn; they simply may not be able to endure the way they are taught. I now know that if I really want to see motivation in my students, I have to be motivated to rethink what it is I am doing to them.

Remember, natural consequences are an important part of life. That’s why we have speeding tickets. A speeding ticket is a natural consequence. If you go too fast, the policeman stops you and gives you a ticket. He doesn’t follow you home to make sure you don’t speed anymore. He lets you go. It’s your job to stop and take responsibility. If you don’t, you’re going to get another ticket fifteen minutes later. Natural consequences help people take responsibility, and they can be used to help kids take responsibility for things like going to school, participating in class and doing homework.

So when you’re interacting with a kid who appears unmotivated, remember that screaming, bargaining and doing things for him will not work. When you’re looking at this child, you have to remember, he is motivated. He’s just motivated to do something different than what you want him to do. He’s motivated to resist you. So the more power you put into it, the stronger his resistance gets. We don’t argue with kids because when we argue with them, we give them power. Focus on making that behavior powerless and give the consequences that you can give so that there’s accountability.


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