Good Leaders Don’t Motivate

I was an active kid, so the best thing I could find to do while my mom was shopping in a department store was to run up the descending escalator over and over again. Looking back on it, I’m sure I annoyed the unsuspecting escalator riders who were surprised to see an obnoxious little kid running up towards them. But back then, I’m sure I was oblivious to the miffed reactions and dirty looks projected at me by the riders while I rushed passed them.

During my career in Human Resources I learned by my own experience and by observing other leaders that trying to be a good, motivating leader is like walking up the down escalator from the perspective of those you lead. Most leaders believe that they are a “good” leader because they are taking steps to motivate and encourage their staff. However, the people they lead often see that their leader is not actually making any real progress because they feel the impact of leader’s unconscious actions that inadvertently demotivate, and perhaps even demoralize them. That’s a real problem because a leader’s most important job is to make people excited about their work and enable them to be great at it.

Most leaders don’t make any real headway when it comes to their most important job because they don’t notice their demotivating actions, nor do they realize how impactful those actions are to others.

Recent studies have discovered that the thoughtless negative things leaders say and do are five times more demotivating to those they lead than anything leaders consciously do to make a positive impact.

Take a moment to think about that. Does it make you think a little differently about your off-hand comments? It should.

There are many things leaders should be doing to inspire others to do great work, but none of these things really matter if the leader is simultaneously doing things that demotivate their people. This is precisely why we see so many leaders today who may be technically competent, and who may be trying to be a good leader, but who nevertheless fail at their most important job.

Only Superb Leaders Actually Motivate

There are three key differences between good leaders and superb leaders.

  1. Superb leaders know that they don’t notice the things they do that demotivate their staff. Because they know this, superb leaders are constantly looking for feedback. Not in a paranoid, insecure way. Instead, they put systems in place to ensure they are receiving unfiltered feedback from those they lead. The most important of these systems is conducting anonymous employee engagement or leadership evaluation surveys annually.
  2. Superb leaders have the humility and emotional fortitude to accept negative feedback graciously, and act on it.
  3. Superb leaders realize that it is more important to eliminate the negative than to increase the positive. Only leaders who train themselves to seek out and eliminate their demotivating quirks and habits will actually be able to motivate and inspire people, which is their most important job.

Good leaders try to motivate people. Superb leaders try not to demotivate people and trust them to motivate themselves. Strive to be better than good. Be superb.


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