The difference between manipulation and motivation


Picture two managers talking by the water cooler:

"Boy, I wish we could find a way to motivate Jack."
"Yeah, me too. He’s not getting into this new program."
"If only we could figure out a way to get him engaged."

Anywhere you go, managers are seeking ways to motivate employees. The problem is that employees cannot be motivated (before you take issue with that, let me finish). Motivation literally means “a reason to move.” Each person’s reasons are different, but they have their reasons and therefore they are already motivated.

A mistake many managers make is thinking they are motivating people when in reality they are manipulating them.

Bottom line, it’s manipulation when we think of a reason others should do something and then convince them of our correctness. Quite frankly, this is not a quality approach.

Why not? Because we can’t force someone to do that which they choose not to do. Someone else’s choices are not within our control.

What we do have control over is the kind of workplace conditions we create, and it’s here where managers can shine: If conditions can be created to tap into existing employee motivators (within reason), employees will engage. But if the created environment clashes with employee value systems, employees will disengage. It’s that simple.

Let’s examine this idea in more detail. At issue is the need for certain work to be done and for employees to be engaged in the work. To make these two come together, win/win thinking needs to happen. Win/win thinking has two focuses: Courage to stand up for our own convictions, and consideration for the other party’s wants and needs.

Fortunately, the concept of thinking win/win was made popular by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Unfortunately, the process of win/win thinking is still misunderstood, so let’s take closer look at the key piece that is missed so often: Considering the other person’s point of view.

Essentially, this means truly seeking out and understanding the other party’s perception—from their words, not from your own imaginings.

The easiest way to discover what employees want is to ask! Although this seems simple enough, the illustration of the two managers standing by the water cooler at the beginning of this column point out an all too common sad truth: Managers will try to figure out others’ wants and needs by osmosis. It’s as if asking people what they want might indicate that the manager is somehow “less than all knowing,” and too many managers don’t like to appear as if they don’t know all the answers.

Take, for example, Ken, a manager who decided he was going to start thinking “win/win.” He sat in his office, contemplating his workers’ needs, and then decided how he would adapt his new plans to fit those needs.

You can guess the problem that ensued. When Ken tried to implement his ideas, his people were less than enthusiastic. And of course, Ken got a little belligerent when they told him he wasn’t really considering their needs.

From Ken’s perspective, he certainly was considering their needs. But from their perspective, he hadn’t asked their input—He only assumed he knew what they wanted. In reality, Ken was manipulating, not motivating.

Understand this and you’ll understand the main difference between manipulation and motivation:

  • Manipulation is thinking of a reason others will want to do something, and then convincing them of your correctness.
  • Motivation is genuinely seeking out the wants, needs, and desires of the other party, and then working with the other party to find solutions that meet your needs - and theirs.

Then everyone’s natural motivation (that is, their own reasons for movement) will drive them forward.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

congratulations! Your website is really excellent.. the tips mentioned here are practical management tips and could be applied directly in workplaces... Good luck

Hassan Melbourne, Australia

Very well said... The needs and wants are different for different people. There's no one single need that is valued the same by all; similarly there is no one single need that is not valued by all.

It also reminds me of the 'selg-hugging' concept by Steven Reiss: people are self-hugger by nature, although some people are more prone to it than others.

A self-hugging person would always want others to accept that his/her way is the best way. With the authority given to this type of person as a manager, it will just make things worst to the employees (but not necessarily to the company though!)...

From the company's perspective, then, manipulation and motivation would both has its place in the managers' book.

Awie Foong