Motivation to Change

January 13th, 2014 | 66 Comments

During the peak of the New Year’s season we were treated to articles and TV segments about making New Year’s resolutions and sustaining behavior change. The pieces usually began by describing hopefulness and initial resolve, then moved on to warn us about the difficulty of change, citing the poor track record of New Year’s resolutions (usually less than a 20% success rate).  Some also described techniques like setting goals and telling others about these goals. But even when using these techniques, the success rate is still low.

Why is that? In my experience as a leadership coach—and as a human being—the critical element is maintaining a high level of motivation. Motivation provides the needed energy, discipline and commitment for change. Most of us recognize that behavior change involves giving up some often-compelling old behaviors, and adopting some new, unfamiliar ones. We also recognize that change requires some discomfort, awkwardness and even setbacks. Anchoring the change to a personally meaningful purpose can be a powerful way to pull us through the turbulent waters of behavior change.

Even though we begin the process with a motivation to change, this motivation tends to wane over time. So the best way to stay motivated is to first name our main motivator and memorize it, then to stay conscious of it, daily or hourly if needed. This ongoing awareness will pull us through the temptations of the old habits and draw us toward the new.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

The amazing thing about motivators is how different people respond to different incentives: Public recognition and praise can be rewarding for some people, and literally punishing for others.  Being more influential or powerful can energize some people; earning more money or getting promoted is primary for others. For some, being the person they have always wanted to be (their ideal self) works best, while helping and not hurting people does it for others. And for people whose career is threatened, keeping their job will be the key to their change.

Hitting Bottom

This last motivator, keeping one’s job, is particularly meaningful because some psychologists believe that for some habituated behaviors, like substance addiction, or those related to strongly-held beliefs,  “hitting bottom” is the most, and sometimes the only effective motivator. In one chapter of his well-written book, Change: What Really Leads To Lasting Personal Transformation, Dr. Jeffrey Kottler describes the motivational power of hitting bottom.

This prevention of catastrophic loss can indeed be a powerful motivator because it taps into our primal survival instinct. Unfortunately, it also carries with it some difficult emotions like fear and anger. Fear and the accompanying anger toward the person creating the fearful situation; i.e., the boss or spouse, can damage that important relationship. Once the short-term threat has passed, the ensuing resentment and anger creates resistance toward the fear inducer, not a great formula for a healthy work or personal relationship. So, there is a downside to fear-motivated action.

I have worked with only a few clients who needed fear to motivate them to change. All other attempts to find a meaningful motivator had come up empty for them. So they continued with the undesired behavior until their manager brought in that threat. It indeed grabbed their attention and motivated them to alter their behavior. But their resentment and alienation grew. One client left for another position, and the other is actively looking.  Perhaps these outcomes are best for both parties, because if the behavior and related mindset are so deep-seated, there is probably not a good fit between the person and their manager or with the organization’s culture. But if the goal is to encourage behavior change while holding on to a valued leader, finding a positive motivator is the best strategy.

66 Responses to “Motivation to Change”

  1. Tita BEal wrote:

    Reminds me of the book titled something like “I was fired and it was the best thing that ever happened to me” – and photos of very famous, successful men.

  2. Bob Swanton wrote:


    Liked your blog. Good points made succinctly.

    Are you familiar with the Center for Motivation and Change on Fifth Ave ?

    Are you teaching at St J’s? Heard they sold the building.

    Hope you are well.


  3. Mary Dalecki wrote:

    I agree with the article.

    In my experience, I was most successful in instituting change when I was able to convince people that I would be there every step of the way to address concerns as they materialized. I also included staff in the process of change. Where I did find difficulty was when there was one outlier who would never contribute positively to help solve issues as they arose.

    I have never found fear to be effective.

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