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There Are Two Ways to Light a Fire


Guest articles > There Are Two Ways to Light a Fire


by: Deb Calvert


In the workplace, managers look for people who are self-motivated. Senior-level managers look for supervisors who can motivate others. There is an expectation that motivation will be high and that the result of high motivation will be increased productivity and improved results.

This common approach causes many managers to feel it is their job to “light a fire under” the people who report to them. That phrase conjures an image of someone who is complacently under-performing until the fire starts to burn, causing them to spring into action for fear of getting burned. I’ve worked with enough managers to know that image is often what they believe is happening – a team member is not fully motivated, so it is the job of the manager to heat things up and compel action.

I’ve done this myself. It’s a classic parenting technique, and I’m sure my kids could tick off numerous examples of times when I’ve tried to light a fire underneath them. Even the notion of Santa keeping a “good” list suggests that we subtly and not-so-subtly light fires underneath our children when we expect them to behave in certain ways. If we grow up with this example and use it in our own parenting, perhaps that carry over into the workplace shouldn’t be so surprising.

Nevertheless, this type of motivation is extrinsic. It comes from an outside source. It relies on the fear of consequence or the promise of reward. That makes it unsustainable – as soon as the fear is gone (like when the supervisor leaves the room) or the reward is already earned or seems unattainable, the motivation is gone, too.

The problem with extrinsic motivation is that it puts a supervisor in a role where he or she must constantly motivate and re-motivate people.

If motivating others were easy to do, no problem. But it’s not. Different people are motivated by different things and figuring out what motivates each individual is, in and of itself, a challenge. That’s why managers really prefer to hire people who are self-motivated.

Being self-motivated means that you don’t rely solely on extrinsic motivation. You are motivated internally, engaged in activities that fuel that motivation and where doing the task itself is its own reward. When someone is self-motivated, they don’t need extrinsic carrot or stick motivators because they are already motivated.

When managers (and parents) forget this, they can actually deplete others’ self-motivation. This happens whenever the thing you get to do becomes the thing you have to do. Entering into journalism school, I was enthusiastic about writing. I wrote every chance I got, enjoying the process even more than the result. By the time I left journalism school, I no longer wanted to be a writer. In fact, I stopped writing for enjoyment. It was 25 years before I rediscovered the joy of writing.

There’s another kind of fire, then, that we should focus on lighting. It’s the little spark inside someone… A spark of enthusiasm, a flicker of unrealized potential, a flash of determination, a first flame of raw talent, or a kindling of interest. These beginnings, internal motivations, can be ignited. Or they can be immediately doused.

We may not mean to douse the fire even before it begins to burn. But check yourself. What do you say when team members bring you new ideas or challenges? Are you quick to get them back on track with their existing tasks? Or do you help them explore what’s new and interesting to them? And what happens when people want to stretch their role or take on new assignments? Do you explain that everyone is already overtaxed and that this is just not possible? Or do you find a way to give them space and time for learning and growing in ways they’ve chosen?

When you ignite a fire within someone, you have a much better chance of seeing a long-term sustained blaze. Intrinsic motivation results in higher levels of concentration, willingness to work longer hours, improved levels of employee engagement and satisfaction, and better results.

Instead of being fire-starters, lighting fires underneath others, we need to be spark-igniters. And we need to avoid being accidental fire fighters, inadvertently putting out the sparks in others before they can catch fire. When we are able to recognize the sparks in others, we will be far more effective in creating environments where people are highly motivated.


Deb Calvert is President, People First Productivity Solutions


Contributor: Deb Calvert

Published here on: 20-Oct-13

Classification: Development



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