For my whole childhood I was a fervent nail biter. And I don’t just mean that you’d occasionally see me with my fingers in my mouth. Oh no. I bit my dear little fingers down to stumpy skin and beyond. As I got a bit older I began to wish I could stop. And of course lots of people in my life had the same wish for me, and would quite incessantly tell me to stop biting nails – including my favourite person in the world, my Grandad Norm. When I was around 10 years old I remember staying over at my Nana and Grandad’s and one evening going out to their big old country kitchen to find scissors and string. I took them to my Grandad and asked him to please tie my hands behind my back. He dutifully did so, and I spent the rest of the evening like that watching telly in front the fire. Sometime after that Grandad told me that he would give me $10 for every nail I could grow. Wow. What an offer. That was $100: a lot of money for a 10 year old back in the 80’s! You’d think that would have clinched the deal, but alas, I never managed it.
My Grandad was quite unwell for a long time, and when I was 12 he passed away. Several years later I drove, with my new driver’s license, up to his grave to show him my car, my license and my newly reasonably well-grown nails. These days I am still occasionally tempted to pick at a rough cuticle, but I haven’t bitten my nails as such for over 20 years. I realised I had to find my own reason and my own way of stopping the nail biting. It had to be my choice, no matter how much I wanted to please my loved ones. It just wasn’t going to work on what I call ‘borrowed motivation’.
In recent months, I’ve had numerous conversations with a range of people about this idea of ‘borrowed motivation’ and I have a feeling it’s something we must talk about more. Borrowed motivation is at play when we want someone else to do something for our reasons (no matter how well intentioned) rather than their own.
One of these recent conversations was with a Dad who had just booked his daughter on a training course in Australia that he thought would “do her good”. “She’s only working at the local café at the moment and she can’t do that forever” he added. She is just a few months out of school and waiting to figure out what she wants to do. I thought it was pretty good she had a job, was taking some time to figure stuff out (lord knows, many of us would have killed for that when we were 18 or 19 years old). She works fulltime, in a rather nice café. It’s a good gig. She’s earning. She’s doing fine.
But apparently not good enough. And where it gets tricky is when the training course rolls around.
She goes and has an okay time; better than she thought. She participates. And she comes home. Dad is chomping at the bit to find out how amazing it was, what she’s decided to do going forward, and feels great disappointment and foreboding when she says yes it was good and no I don’t know.
Now, she’s a ‘good girl’ (and if it were the son he’d probably be a ‘good boy’) so she went, she participated, but it wasn’t her gig. It was her Dad’s. And that borrowed motivation is what the whole thing was riding on.
Manager and leaders, this is for you
We all have a friend who is insanely gifted in some way but isn’t yet realising their potential – as a musician, an artist, a parent. It can be SO frustrating! But for anyone who’s taken that friend to an art class, or got them a great gig somewhere, you’ll know they have to make their own way. Even if you do get them to go along, or take that job, or start writing that book, it can be really hard work if you are the one trying to keep the whole gig going. The trouble with borrowed motivation is that it’s like dating someone way out of your league; it’s very fragile, needs constant attention and is often temporary.
This is why for many managers in organisations ‘getting people to do stuff’ feels so hard, and the tendency is use either a Tell style of delegation to get things done, or a highly delegative style of handing a task over with zero guidance or checking in. We are so task focused, we haven’t bothered to connect with the human being about to do the task. And while many leaders say they just don’t have time for that, quite frankly, you don’t have time to NOT connect with this human being – that is if you want them to be engaged and productive. Whilst we are well out of the industrial age, we still want people to act like machines. Instead we need to treat them like the intelligent, heart-based people they are and find out what they want to do, why they want to do it, and how they’d like to get it done. Get them thinking for themselves, from their own sense of purpose, and you don’t need to keep thinking for them – and getting caught out with borrowed motivation. It will trip you up every time. Check out several book reviews here about motivation and why we do what we do.
What if you want to help?!
I’ve had dozens and dozens of phone conversations with people over the years who want their daughter, son, wife, husband, sister in-law, flatmate, colleague or patient to come and work with me in coaching, or attend one of my courses. I say the same thing to all of them – How does this person feel about coming to coaching? Are they ready? Do they want to work with me? Tell them to give me a call, and we can go from there. Now, sometimes it’s a useful referral, well timed and just what the person is looking for, and the rest of the time it might not be. I hear from probably 20% of these people. And often a long time later. Just recently I had someone contact me and book their first session who had been given my contact details six months ago. That’s perfect, because it’s in their time, and I know from experience they will get better results. We have to choose for ourselves – and that choice might be in part because of our concern for the impact our stress is having on others, our family, etc, but it has to be our call.
What if this person is someone you really love and they are really harming themselves by not seeking help?
This can be the hardest thing to come to terms with and I can honestly say I have a lot of lived experience of this. It can be excruciating to know there is some kind of solution or help for someone that they don’t want to take. (And we’re not talking about emergency stuff here, like someone calling suicide or something (that is when we pick up the phone and DO something), we’re talking about the patterns of life that we are all caught in on one level or another – whether we are consciously aware of those patterns or not). And when this is what’s going on for someone and they’re not ready to do something about it, we need to focus (perhaps counter-intuitively) on how we are processing the situation and taking care of ourselves. We can’t control what someone else does or doesn’t do, but we can take more control of how we’re handling it and what healing we might need to cope with or transcend the situation. This is often my advice to parents with a chronically ill child, a spouse living with someone with addiction or depression, or a staff member with a tyrannical boss. Do what you need to do for yourself. That’s your journey. And that’s what puts you in a better position to be able to help resourcefully when they are ready to do their work, or when you need to make new decisions about what you’re prepared to live with, or not.
You get to choose.