The Great Motivation Hoax

(Enjoy this guest post by David M. Dye, a member of the #LeadWithGiantsCommunity)

It’s in the top three. 

Every time.

If you were to attend my leadership workshops, you’d see me ask leaders to identify their own learning objectives.

Without fail, one item rises to the top. 

“How do I motivate my team?”

The question comes in a rainbow of flavors: How can I get my team to…

  • Be more productive?
  • Solve more problems?
  • Be more creative?
  • Get things done?
  • Care?

If you’re like most leaders, you’ve asked this question in one or more of its many flavors.

Early in my career, my version was, “How do I make people change?” 

I went on an extended search, asked mentors, read everything I could find, and ultimately found an answer in the last place I would have thought to look.

Motivate This

Have you ever seen something so beautiful that it physically hurts?

The National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. does that to me. 

It houses some of the world’s most stunning bonsai trees. Among the living works of art (including a 389-year-old Japanese White Pine that survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb) are Satsuki Azaleas. 

I’ve included a picture of a spectacular azalea with its foliage and then in full bloom. 


Look at the photograph of the azalea with leaves. If you received that plant in January, how would you motivate it to bloom in May?

If you tried to answer the question, you probably suggested giving the azalea a good soil mixture, plenty of sun and water, and perhaps a little pruning.

If you laughed or were confused by the question, it’s okay. The idea of motivating a plant to bloom doesn’t make much sense. 

Plants don’t bloom because you want them to. 

They don’t bloom because you ask them to. 

Plants don’t attend motivational seminars.

Plants bloom when they’re healthy and conditions are right, because that’s what plants do.

If you want your leafy azalea to be covered in spectacular pink blossoms, you don’t motivate, you cultivate.

The Great Motivation Hoax

When leaders ask me, “How can I motivate my team?” my answer is simple:

You can’t.

Despite a glut of motivational posters, speakers, and seminars, the hard truth is that you don’t hold the key to your team’s motivation.

They do.

Motivation comes from inside a person. External motivation is a hoax. Your people will always choose what makes the most sense to them.

In short, you cannot motivate…

But, you can cultivate.

Bring Out the Best

You cultivate a healthy environment for plants when you give them the nutrients they need and guard them against disease and insects.

In the same way, your job as a leader is to create an environment that allows your people to express their strengths in a way that contributes to the team and to results.

Here are examples you can use to cultivate (not motivate) a team at work:

Focus on strength

A pine tree doesn’t have a “blossom weakness”. It just has other strengths. When you add people to the team, focus on their strength. 

Clear expectations

What does success look like? People focus when they know where they’re going.

Connect the “what” to the “why”

Why do you and your team do what you do? People will unleash amazing energy when their work is connected to meaningful purpose.

Protect from disease

As with plants, sometimes you need to prune your team to keep it healthy. Protect your team against corruption, poor performance, and negativity. 

Your Turn

Add to the list: How do you cultivate an environment that brings out the best in your team?

Creative Commons Photo Credits: 
Azalea by cliff1066
Blooming Azalea by Grufnik

Written by

David M. Dye works with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done. He is a former nonprofit executive, elected official and author of The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say. David tweets from @davidmdye and would love to connect with you there, on LinkedIn or on his website:

14 Responses to "The Great Motivation Hoax"

  1. Joy Guthrie says:

    An excellent post David with a message told through a brilliant analogy. Well done.

    • David Dye says:

      Thank you Joy! I appreciate the kind and uplifting words 🙂 Sometimes it’s easier for us to learn by analogy, isn’t it?

      Take care,


  2. I really like this analogy. It’s makes a lot of sense. Nice blog post.

  3. Great post David. I really liked the example even if the Azalea lost me for a minute (-;

    I think another way we can cultivate our teams is to cultivate ourselves. When our teams see that our development is important, they begin to think that their development is important as well. Don’t hide your learning behind closed doors, bring it out into the public arena!

    • David Dye says:

      Hi Joseph,

      You’re right on – leaders do best cultivating their team when they first cultivate themselves. Learning, health, relationships are all important.


  4. Dan Forbes says:

    All good points, David. Azalea’s have a intrinsic motivation to grow and blossom. I believe that we as humans are born with a similar intrinsic desire. It’s the experiences of life, the attitudes we encounter, the habits we develop that stunt our growth. The good news is that all of that can be overcome. We can succeed wildly beyond our dreams.

    • David Dye says:

      Thanks, Dan.

      These internal motivations do vary from person to person. I think that’s one of a leader’s challenges: treating people in the way that allows each to flourish and fully contribute. Continuing the analogy: different plants need different amounts of water, sun, or varied soil compositions.

      I’ve seen many leaders get horribly frustrated when people won’t just “do it.” They’re people, not computers, right?

  5. Mark Biemans says:

    I think there is a lot to learn when you ask the person who has the lowest performance what is bothering him/her, or better, ask what he or she thinks the team needs to perform better and what he/she needs.
    And listen. LISTEN.
    Because probably that person is the less heard.
    Be open, ask advice.
    No judgements, no knowing betters.
    Write down his words and think about it later.
    You could even end with asking what he thinks You need, to improve your leadership.

  6. Paul walker says:

    Great analogy that presents a very useful message. It is important we take the time to talk and learn about the people for whom we are responsible. By doing this over time, we can hopefully have an idea of what makes them “tick” or what is important to them. We can then use this knowledge to decide what kind of “soil” they need, and or when ” is the best to “water” them, etc.

    Very thought provoking article.

  7. Hi David,
    My favorite two sayings are: Motivation is an inside job and you can lead the horse to water but you can’t motivate him to drink. This is a great post. Thanks for it.