How To Motivate People Effectively

Okay, so you can motivate yourself…but do your tricks of the trade work on anyone but you?

Writing out a list of your goals is great, but you can’t sit another human being down and lay out their aspirations for them.

The key to motivating others is finding a way to convince them that they want a certain thing and that they should not stop until they achieve it.

Depending on the person, coaxing them into action might involve threatening their ass with being fired from their job, or it might involve bribery with shiny gold stars.

Hence, the two types of motivational methods of reward and punishment.

The Reward Method

Let’s talk about bribery first. It’s a harsh word, but it gets the job done. Christmas bonuses based on merit are the bread and butter of workplace bribes. You do well, you get paid more. It’s that traditional carrot and stick method that has made the world of motivation go-round for hundreds of years.

Recently, studies have found that this method works best when the work being done is “brainless.” Meaning that an assembly line worker will respond a lot better to being rewarded for productivity than someone writing software programs from scratch.

Basically, this is because narrowing your focus and concentrating on speed and product output are only positive things when your cognitive processes are not in overdrive. Pressure to output a large amount often stunts creativity.

Notice that there is a difference between guaranteed rewards and rewards based on chance.

When you were a kid, you might have sold magazines to raise money for your school’s derelict arts department. The highest selling kids, (never you, because your parents were above hawking issues of Time to their co-workers), were awarded the best prizes. This kind of reward is variable because any child involved has the opportunity to win.

To translate into the language of adults – promising a pink Cadillac to the top seller in a pyramid scheme is a variable reward.

Why does this kind of thing work, and when should you use it?

Variable rewards work because people like to dream big about getting something for nothing. The attraction to pyramid schemes is the possibility of a high return with not much input. If you are a business owner or a casino connoisseur, this tactic is for you.

You can motivate people to buy your products or even advertise for you if you’re willing to give them something in return.

For example, let’s say that you run an eCommerce store that sells onion slicers.

Normally, your specialized services won’t get a lot of publicity because let’s be honest…who really needs more than one onion slicer? Your clients probably follow the “one and done” mentality.

How do you get them to buy and advertise for you when you’re selling something they don’t specifically need? Offer them something for free!

Do this:

1.) Create ads proclaiming how great your onion-slicing technology is. Think snappy and colourful.

2.) Plaster your Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr with these ads.

3.) Run a contest. One lucky person who shares or likes this ad will receive a FREE onion slicer. The more times they share, the greater the chance that they’ll win!

4.) Profit from the free publicity. There is such a thing as a free lunch, and you’re randomly awarding it. People will come flocking to your business scheme, whether they need a second onion slicer or not.

It might sound like a specialized way of motivating people, but using variable rewards is a powerful factor in the marketing and sales world. If it didn’t work, gambling rehab wouldn’t be a thing. Similarly, companies that recruit buyers as sellers like Avon and Mary Kay probably wouldn’t stay in business.

The Punishment Method

Like the reward method, the punishment method also has two forms. The first is tried and true, and you’ve seen its face in the form of being grounded as a child or fired from your job as an adult.

To motivate someone by threatening them with punishment if they don’t abide by your rules, just follow these simple steps!

1.) Outline the task in a clear way. Set expectation.

2.) Threaten the sure wrath of whatever God they believe in if the task is not completed in a timely manner.

3.) Rain down fire and brimstone on their ass if the job isn’t completed.

Yes, it’s that simple. The idea here is to set the precedent that “not completing X means I will suffer Y.”

Essentially, you are provoking the same mindset in your motivatee as the reward method, only the “reward” is bad. If your workers have to ask if something is a threat or a promise, you’re doing it right.

If the threat of sure punishment is not enough to goad their goat, let’s take it up a notch. How about the threat to punish someone else?

That’s the idea behind group punishment – you screw up, your best buddy suffers instead…and you lucky dog, you get to watch! Evil but effective? Use with caution.

Using Group Punishment To Make A Statement

We’ll use a military setting for this example because that’s most likely where you’ll find it.

Do this:

1.) Be in a position of power with subordinates under you.

2.) Make your wishes clear and threaten certain consequences if rules are broken.

3.) Make a mandatory 3-mile run at 7 am Saturday morning if your rules are broken. This run is for the person who royally screwed up…and all their comrades!

4.) Watch as everyone not-so-subtlety shames the rule-breaker into never making the same mistake again.

In the military, this kind of thing might happen because someone received a DUI or broke a curfew.

In your office, you can employ this group punishment method for a variety of different situations. Is the break room microwave continuously sporting a thick coat of artistic food splatters, despite your numerous warnings? Take it away for a week to remind employees that their food warming privileges are exactly that…a privilege.

If you have multiple kids and one of them makes a mess but won’t fess up, punish them all until they peer-pressure the perpetrator out of hiding. It works because people care how they are seen by others.

Similarly, there are some situations where group motivation relies on societal expectations. Simply put – people will feel motivated just because society expects them to.

Picture this: you’re out at the bar with friends and everyone has bought a round of drinks…except you. So right now, you know the right thing to do. You have to buy the next round. Why? Because that’s the polite, socially-acceptable thing to do. Because your friends expect you do. And finally, because you respect your friends and want to do good for them. You don’t want to disappoint them, right?

How To Motivate Trough Expectations

Parenting styles. If you are a parent, you’ve probably thought about the best way to discipline your child. If you aren’t a parent, you’ve probably still thought about the best way to discipline a child…because you disapprove of the way your parents disciplined you. (It’s okay, you can admit it.)

So how do you motivate a child by using expectations?

You: I expect you to make high scores in algebra this year. 

Child: Why?

You: Because I said so. Also, I’ll be disappointed in you if you don’t. (After making terrible scores on an algebra exam.)

Child: Sorry….

You (while giving a strong look of disapproval): I’m very disappointed in you. I’m not going to ground you or take away your allowance, but just know that you’ve let me down.

(He/She makes better scores on the next algebra exam because he or she craves attention and appreciation.)

You: Good job! I’m proud of you!

On a completely opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes your workers and even family can benefit from a bit of slack.

Remember that good old 20% rule? (In some companies, employees are given set working hours, but 20% of their time is “free time,” in which they are free to work on whatever strikes their fancy…as long as they are still working.) 

This works because it shows your employees that you trust them and value their personal goals just as much as the goals you’ve set out for them.

If you want to try this method in your personal life, consider giving your children ample time each day to explore and learn on their own.

Keep In Check

Whatever the motivation method you choose, you’re going to need to follow up. Checking in on whatever project your employees, students, or even children are working on is a sure-fire way to encourage them to work.

If you’ve ever left your kids at home with directions to “have that room clean” when you get home, you know that unsupervised children usually choose to do whatever the heck they want. (Good luck with seeing the floor cleaned in their room anytime soon.)

So how do you fix the situation? You check in on them periodically to make sure that they are working.

Teachers patrol exam classrooms to prevent cheating, but also to encourage students to work quickly.

Even gardeners know that you can’t grow something worthwhile if the plant is left to its own devices all summer.

How to Motivate by Being Big Brother

Do this:

You: I would like X done by this certain time on this certain day. I expect your work to be exemplary.

Worker: Okay! I can do that!

You (an appropriate amount of time later, busting into the break room in a flurry of boss-dom): How is that project going?

Worker (after slacking in the break room and eating doughnuts for half an hour longer than necessary): Oh…it’s going great!

You: Good, remember that I’m expecting your best work.

The worker’s focus is returned to the project because you reminded them that you expect results in a timely manner. You have reiterated your expectations, and continuing to do so will help them stay on task.

Just remember to use your best judgment about the frequency of your check-ins.

An overbearing boss will squelch motivation and morale in his or her workplace.

Your goal is to remind your employees that they have work to do, but ultimately it is their choice whether or not they complete it. (Of course, it is your choice to fire or reward them later.)


In the end, motivating others is all about understanding your audience. If you are working with kindergarteners, don’t offer them a raise in pay as a reward, because they won’t understand it enough to glean motivation from it.

Similarly, treat the adults in your life with whatever motivation style suits them and the goal they are striving towards.

So to summarize, here is what you can do right now to motivate others:

1.) Think about who you’re trying to motivate and discern what method you think will work best.

2.) Double check that method with the work that’s being done. (i.e., is it creative enough to try the 20% rule, or would your workers be more motivated to excel at the daily grind if you’re offering rewards?)

3.) Communicate what you want clearly, no matter what strategy you choose.

4.) Be consistent and follow up. If you say you’re going to reward them or check up on them, do it.

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