How to spark motivation in a capable yet uncommitted individual?

If only that colleague, friend, or teen child would live up to his potential!

I recently experienced this challenge with my teen son entering his senior year in high school.  He has yet to discover his desired field of study…therefore spends time watching videos.  Hullo?!

Your situation may differ yet leaves you just as confused.  Why does a colleague resists change or balks on implementation?  We don’t need to know the “why’s” of their behavior.  We do need to decide what you and I can and will do about it.  Action is our zone of influence.

Try these steps to get the motivation ball to start rolling.

1. Disrupt the Physical Context

Try temporarily transplanting them into a new physical setting.  It’s like showing them a trailer of future potential.

  • Take a trip or an off-site meeting
  • Propose they shadow a client or a colleague in a different department for a day
  • Engage in role-plays and exchange roles.
    Have the team member put himself in the shoes of someone who has a strong opinion, an opposing stance, who has already succeeded…
  • Attend a personal development workshop

2. Generate New Questions

A new context breaks from our routine, opens the way for exploration, and invites space for discussion.  Questions we could not have previously envisioned become apparent.  We can both ask them and be open to hearing their response.

The new environment shifts the limelight from fixing a motivational problem to understanding a new situation.

These questions seek learning.

3. Welcome Surprises

Surprises, by definition, unhitch.   In management, surprise often represents bad news:  the sign of lack of anticipation, of mistaken KPI’s, of lack of control.

“A woman is like a tea bag.  You won’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

Discovery also loosen up attitudes and knots in relationships.  In unknown circumstances our real strengths reveal themselves.

4. Evaluate the Learning

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
– Benjamin Franklin

Synthesizing the new experience into a few key points involves the person and maximizes the learning.

Our brain literally changes shape according to our thoughts.  By re-hashing concepts, we strengthen the brain’s ability to remember them.

5. Commit to Action

Motivation is revealed through actions.

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

Motivation Business Case –

Motivating a Young Employee

A young coaching client admitted that effort is not his strong suit.

Disrupt the Context

Together we set up informational interviews with experts in his field.  “What’s the point of THAT?” he wondered until he experienced their enthusiasm and the purpose which motivates their work.

Generate New Questions

His professional reputation took on a new importance  He sought out colleagues to identify interesting questions which would help him look intelligent with the experts.

Welcome Surprises & Synthesize Learning

This young employee reported back his discoveries:

  • “I spoke with fellow engineers but most of our discussions centered on management issues!”
  • “These people have worked for the same company for more than a decade. They like it (the surprise) because they were able to hold a variety of positions and keep growing.”

These are valuable insights to gain early on in one’s career.

Commit to Action

“I should write a thank you note?!” he exclaimed.  (Another invaluable learning.  Yes!  Preferably the same day.  By the end of the week at the latest.)

Each of the experts this young employee met could be a potential mentor.  How could he become a valuable mentee?  In his thank you notes he committed to touching base within six months with new questions about managing engineers.

Motivation Life Application –

Motivating a Teen to Study

My teen son applies to colleges next year.  His grades are “good enough” for him and “not sufficient to offer great choices” according to me.

“Mom, I don’t know what to study.  There are no choices to make now.”  That is where our opinions differ.

Disrupt the Context

To explore his future productively and positively, we toured college campuses.  He walked the knowledge-filled halls, heard the enthusiastic students, and visited livable dorm rooms.  His no longer felt nor thought like he did when lounging in his room.

Generate New Questions

Prior to our campus visits, my son had asked, “What should I study?” seeking The Correct Answer.

With the fresh perspective of a changed context, he made new inquiries:

  • What do engineers do? What is marketing?  What makes a good lawyer?
  • How does one evaluate options?
  • What will happen if _____ (I change my mind, I fail a class…)?

Welcome Surprises

Our visits took us to Montreal during the Jazz Festival, where we discovered a range of music in a dynamic, fun-filled ambiance.

At one point, we lost each other in the crowd.  To find me, he climbed to a spot with a lookout on the horde.

Apply that to your life, darling. Let’s review the list of majors as if they were people in a mob.   We will eliminate most of them and only take a second look at topics that generate a hint of interest.”

Also, in the process of discovery, we grew more open to each other’s different perspectives.   I could listen to his fumbling with more patience.  He willingly received my probing questions.

Synthesize Learnings

“Mom, that was a really interesting trip. It helped thinking about college. Thanks.”

“How did it help?”

“Uhh…”  Pause.  Thinking.  Synthesizing.  Summarizing.

  1. “I still don’t know what I want to study but since I realize I can change my mind later, it is easier to choose something.”
  2. “To be able to change, I need good grades.”
  3. “These schools are far away, but I could live there. I am capable.”

We’ve come a long way…

Commit to Action

…and to move further forward he committed to asking fellow camp counselors this summer how they decided what to study in university.


“The secret of getting ahead is starting. The secret of getting started is breaking your tasks into smaller manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
– Mark Twain

Get started with one. small. step.


What commitment will you make?  Let us know in the comments.

Cover photo from Disney movie Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Posted in Motivation

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