Industry Update
Opinion Article 6 September 2016

Motivating People

By Conor Kenny, Teacher, Trainer, Writer, Founder of

share this article
1 minComments

The idea that you can motivate people is an illusion. You can't. But, before you race for your keyboard to argue otherwise, think on these things first.


What is motivation?

In very simple terms, it is an impulse to act or even behave in a certain way. That response is from within and based on a myriad of reasons, logic, experience and history. It is a complex web and a one size response does not fit all.


Many people confuse motivation with happiness. They are not the same thing. Like sunshine, happiness doesn't last even in the sunniest of cities. Motivation, on the other hand, has the power to glide over the superficial allure of moods and euphoria.

When you're trying to motivate a team that is worth remembering.

So what are the key things to remember if you want to motivate? Here are a few powerful thoughts;


If we talk about 'working hard' that, on its own, is meaningless because it is subjective without any measures.

In work, there are only 3 benchmarks – ever;

  1. Fails to meet expectations
  2. Meets expectations
  3. Exceeds expectations

Of course, that immediately creates obligations for the employer and that means agreeing the benchmarks and the expectations.

Put simply – clarify and agree.

You can't expect everyone to have the same dedication as you."
Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid


Nobody wants to be inferior and nobody wants to feel subservient. Equality matters. Equality does not mean the same salary, status or title, it goes deeper than that. Equality means respect and that includes the most powerful thing we can ever do for another human being – listening intently.

Seniority does not have a monopoly on strategy, ideas or insights. If you have all the answers and don't need their view then why did you employ them?

"I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."

Winston S. Churchill

Finding Good not Flaws

When I was in junior school we had a very patient kindly teacher who left a significant mark at a very young age.

Like every journey through childhood, there are tests, tribulations and tribes. In this instance, there was a bully and opposite the bully was a young boy who suffered terribly with anxiety. The bully found such vulnerability attractive and constantly chipped away. The teacher spotted it and rounded firmly on the aggressor saying "It's easy to hit a sinking ship. Shall I show you? Leave the room, for a week".

Everyone deserves respect and good leaders know that instinctively. A bully, a man who seeks popularity at the expense of others will never motivate anyone around or beneath him. In fact, he will do the opposite, he will earn himself profound disrespect.

Everyone has flaws, everyone has attributes. Smart leaders find the assets – no matter how well hidden.

"Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and
he will become as he can and should be."
Stephen R. Covey


Those fabulous German engineered machines might just do a great job every single day for 40 years. It would be great if we humans were the same, we are not. It is our emotions and emotional intelligence that separate us.

Understanding emotions and, more importantly, what is behind them, is the secret to managing motivation.


You can't understand why I'm turning down the promotion to a job that involves very exotic travel yet you didn't know I'd a fear of flying.

You don't understand why I polish my shoes so well but you didn't know how I was brought up.

You assumed more money would motivate me but that was never to know who I am.

You thought a clap on the back was enough but I wanted a critique more than "well done"

Your words and language were throw away but you never knew their impact.

You assumed rather than knew.

You guessed rather than asked.

You decided rather than enquired.

You thought you knew me but you didn't.


That's why I'm gone



Good leaders are humble. They put others first, suppress their ego and listen with absolute focus. Sometimes less is more. Note all the leaders who motivated you by saying very little? If you think about it, they just got you to speak. That, on its own, motivated you.

"The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand.
We listen to reply."
Stephen R. Covey


Every day I get to work with bright young people. The fun is being with them, not in what they say.

They come in wide eyed and eager to learn. When they hear something new, you can see the wonder.

I start every workshop with the same question "Who is ambitious?" No, not every hand shoots into the air. Some think, some react, some are reluctant, some suspicious. Over time, every hand goes up. Every hand.

It is no different in your business. Every hand is going up but you need to make sure you see it.

There's no such thing as a lazy person

My Dad spent a lifetime working with managers. Right up to the end of his life, he always wanted to debate how we impact on students and how we teach them.

One of his books (Can You Manage? – Ivor Kenny) is staple reading for our students. Their homework is simply to read it and pick out any 3 paragraphs that impacted on their thinking. They must write it and explain why it meant what it meant.

Towards his final days, he used to love nothing more than to listen to me read out their stories. Sometimes I'd see a silent tear. It doesn't need me to tell you that his motivation in life was always to bring out the very best in people and that motivation was there until his last breath.


A few years earlier, he delivered a workshop for our own team and a few guests. At the end of his piece he made a very simple but solemn statement. It's worth thinking about, reflecting on and then maybe seeing things just a little differently.


"There's no such thing as a lazy person …. They are either sick or in the wrong job"

  • Ivor Kenny


I started by saying "you can't motivate people". Let me add to it now.


Motivation comes from within. It is a complex response to a unique set of influences, events and ambition. What we can do is facilitate a path, open a door and allow change. If you do that (and more) you will be rewarded by knowing you have been a catalyst for allowing someone to become who they are.

After all, isn't that the most rewarding gift of all?

Conor Kenny

Conor Kenny is the Principal of Conor Kenny & Associates, a professional development, training and direct consultancy company, (Best Professional development Consultancy 2018 – Irish Enterprise Awards) specialising in sales, marketing, strategy and management skills and focused on helping you get the best from your people and business.

    More from Conor Kenny
    Conor Kenny
    Latest News