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Want to Motivate Others? First, Recognize That You Can’t.

In the book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, Ammon Shea writes about our propensity to make verbs out of nouns (verbing nouns, as it’s called). As the title suggests, this can cause a great deal of consternation among grammar Nazis. However, Shea contends that language is made for the people, not people for language, and that we should embrace its fluid nature. Well in the vein of this argument, I would like to offer my linguistic modification. But instead of verbing a noun, I would like to de-verb a noun.

The word I would like to de-verb?

To motivate.

Motivation is a perfectly serviceable noun. We all have motivation within us—motivation that drives us to learn, grow, strive, and excel. This is intrinsic motivation. It is innate and drives us to do that which we love, which gives us joy, which has purpose and meaning to us and that which we value.

Now one might argue that, intrinsic or not, we are motivated to do these things, and that this is a verb. But it’s a passive verb, which as we all know is lazy English. It begs the question “what motivates us intrinsically?” The answer is that we just are—that it’s part of the human condition.

But what about extrinsic motivation? Don’t things like pay, benefits, and recognition motivate (verb) us? Not necessarily. When you plug a lamp into the electrical grid, you don’t “electrical grid” the lamp; you plug it in. In the same way, it may be more accurate to say that external drivers plug into our internal intrinsic motivation circuitry.

Okay, you might say. This is fine as an academic exercise, but what does it mean to me?

Recognize that you can’t motivate (verb) your employees; you only can tap into their motivation (noun). In a way, this makes your job easier. After all, plugging into an existing electrical grid is much easier than creating your own. The way you can do this is by learning what drives them intrinsically and then capitalizing on those drivers. For instance, one time I asked my employees to tell me about their favorite hobbies and what it was about these activities that excited them so much. One employee told me how much he loved to cook for others. He liked the idea that he could take very simple ingredients and assemble them in a way that impressed and brought pleasure to others. This insight was invaluable to me as I crafted a role that allowed this employee to provide services to our internal business partners.

Okay, so we may never be able to de-verb motivate, but we can benefit from tapping into the existing motivation circuitry that lies within all of us.

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