how to encourage others to be motivated

Below is a guest post by executive coach, author and former CEO of iSolon, John Cross on how to encourage others to feel motivated. His 30 year career has spanned the commercial, public and voluntary sectors and the knowledge he has acquired has fuelled the design of leadership and management development programmes which have been delivered to major corporations around the world. He has acted as an invited guest speaker for a number of leading institutions including Henley Business School and the LSE. During the writing of his latest book, he qualified to drive articulated Large Goods Vehicles solely for enjoyment purposes. He is married to Julia and they have three children and ten grandchildren. John supports Arsenal.

Over to John…

We all know why it’s so hard at times to let go and allow others to take on a role. It’s because, in the short run at least, it’s far quicker and easier for you to do something that you already know how to do well, rather than ask someone else with less experience or apparent ability to step in and do it for you. Likewise, you often step in and do things for others because again, in that immediate cost–benefit calculation made quickly in your head, waiting for someone with inferior skills to finish a task is way more time-consuming than you doing it for them. And if you did allow them to work it out for themselves, did you still have a thought bubble with the words ‘it would have been quicker to do it myself ’ pop up beside you? Similar situations abound in which your desire for control makes it impossible for others to develop their own self-motivation.

However aspirational it might be for you, as a parent, to tell your teenage son or daughter to, ‘Make sure you’re home by 11 pm’, it’s still perceived as an order. Saying to one of your workers, ‘Make sure I have that report on my desk by Friday’ is also not motivational. Both are usually resented by the receiver as they had their own plans which may (or may not) have coincided with yours. 

Talking with a group of friends the other day, I asked about the situation of a mutual friend’s oldest son. He is 35 now. The response: ‘Harry has no drive or ambition. He’s happy and perfectly content in a rather mundane job even though his Ivy-League University degree would predict a far more senior and responsible job. But he’ll never change.’

Lack of self-motivation can prove very frustrating for those living or working close by. So let’s try to help Harry develop a bit more self-motivation and in doing so, offer guidance to those parents, little league and junior coaches, managers, and executives who are seeing those close to them failing to reach their true potential, however happy they may appear on the outside.

How to do this? It starts with the everyday leader realising that their job is not to step in and ‘fix every problem’ but to create the environment in which others can develop and flourish: to try things that they are not immediately great at doing; to allow others to fail but each time allowing them try again in order to improve and gradually encouraging them to take on more and more responsibility.

I know this is a huge generalisation but most leaders take on way too many tasks and assume far too much responsibility. This is a crucial point, because developing your leadership role involves doing less but thinking more. So what is self-motivation? First, let’s be clear what we are talking about. Self-motivation is an ability built up from the inside, a force that allows you to do something without being directed, influenced or persuaded by someone else. Self-motivated people have the drive and determination to set themselves a goal: overcome obstacles: use setbacks to re-invigorate and re-energise and to deploy their dedication and commitment to overcome a challenge.  

Entrepreneurs are usually considered to be self-motivated but everyday examples of self-motivation, which you may have overlooked because they seem so mundane, are ever-present:

  • Getting up in the morning at a time of your choosing to go for a run.
  • Checking fluid levels and the tire pressure on your car regularly without prompting.
  • Completing household tasks and small repairs before anyone asks you.
  • Starting a business plan.
  • Voluntarily giving up smoking, exercising more or eating healthier food.
  • Decluttering the garage or house.

The list could go on, but by now you get the picture. All of us have completed at least one of those tasks, which means we are all capable of being self-motivated.

When people are self-motivated they are often seeking satisfaction from within. This is the intrinsic motivator. Sometimes it helps if there is a reward or an acknowledgement, which is an extrinsic reason. Which of the two is motivating you depends on the situation. To help Harry become self-motivated requires that a goal be set that has some risk attached. Easier said than done as not setting goals is the problem with those lacking self-motivation. Forget risk for the moment; our options are extremely limited as the primary quality of self-motivation is that the goal isn’t triggered or encouraged by outside agents. Harry has to do this himself, so direct phrasing like ‘have you thought about?’, or ‘why don’t you?’ are not viable options.

Indirectly planting a seed by setting up scenarios and opportunities for Harry to ‘discover’ his goal has to be the only way. Encouragement tactics of an indirect nature that steer someone towards a goal might include: identifying a subject or issue he is interested in or spoken about and offering up chances to learn more about them: leaving a self-help book in plain sight, giving a biography, book or film, of someone Harry admires, as a present, inviting him to meet, for a coffee or lunch, someone who is self-motivated, and who has the same or similar interest, set an example for them by describing something you’ve ‘decided to do . . .’

Don’t be afraid to ask questions like ‘How do you think it would make you feel if you tried . . .’

And we mustn’t forget that negative scenario planning – i.e. discouragement tactics – can also work to steer someone away from a path that is sub optimal for them: 


  • ‘Do you really plan on being in the same organisation when you retire?
  • ‘When did you last re-decorate this room?’ (knowing the answer is never)
  • ‘I see that Omar has a new car, how old is yours now?’
  • ‘Is that a new shirt you’re wearing?’ (knowing that it isn’t)
  • ‘Do you think you’ll ever go see that . . .’
  • ‘How would it make you feel if you never once . . .’ 


Be patient: keep trying the above. If unsuccessful, you will have to partner with Harry and suggest something that you could do together, such as: ‘Why don’t we . . . [enter the local fun run together or climb Mount Everest].’ Keep it simple (the Everest suggestion can be mentioned playfully) and choose something you’re sure he likes, but ask Harry to organise it. Check the progress he makes regularly and congratulate him on his efforts. Complete the task and choose the next. Repeat until you ask him to suggest your next partnership activity: ‘OK, now I’ve suggested the previous two things we’ve done together, why don’t you choose next?’ I bet Harry has often wanted to do some interesting things but lack of self-motivation (and lack of practice at choosing and organising) has meant that he’s done nothing about it. You’re attempting to change ‘wanting to do’ into ‘planning to do’ and ‘doing’. Sometimes not so subtle encouragement is warranted: ‘Can you organise it Harry, as I’m saturated with work issues at the moment?’ Progress will occur, but in small steps.

Next up, tackling risk. Most of us are risk averse. And yet confronting our fears and dealing with them, can lead to an improvement in our self-esteem. It turns out that experiencing fear in a safe, controlled environment can be euphoric. Have a think about Harry’s level of unacceptable risk. Is it more about potential danger to the body or to feelings? Is Harry afraid of being thought a ‘failure’? Has Harry allowed his history of not succeeding in something dear to him, to quieten his ambition? Is he saying to himself, ‘I have failed before and didn’t like the feeling; therefore I won’t put myself into the same position again’? This needs testing. 

If you are not making the progress you had expected, then perhaps it’s time for you to face him directly: ‘Harry, I feel I have to say this to you – I feel that you have the talent and ability to achieve higher level goals, and yet to me, you seem to have lost your mojo. You seem to settle for less these days. Has something happened?’ Listen carefully to the response, but don’t take the answer at face value. Ask more questions until you feel satisfied.

Developing self-motivation in children, family members and friends or relatives gives you more time to think plan and act. And it gives you, the ‘everyday leader’ a sense of achievement. Good Luck.

You can buy John’s book The Everyday Leader (which I also feature in) here.

Everyday Leader

Read more guest posts HERE.


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3 Responses

  1. Zoe Campos

    I love how you mentioned that lack of motivation can be very frustrating especially on my part, as an adult who hasn’t accomplished anything yet. I’m in my late 30s now and I’m not sure if I’m still ready to start my dream business yet. Maybe listening to motivational speakers can help me find my real purpose in life.

  2. kongnesi

    Firstly and fore mostly… THANK YOU! Thank you a million times for doing what you do. Thank you for sharing with us this important and special time of your life – for talking openly and honestly

  3. Mary

    Thanks for sharing this informative article. It is not easy to become a motivational speaker when you stand in hundreds of people and all people looking at you. It is not easy to motivate every people. You have always had the unique ability to assess difficult situations, determine what could be done differently, and then create simple, easy to understand, and easy to implement solutions, which deliver sustainable results FAST.


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