Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does – The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging

Motivation is one of the most vital and essential aspects of leadership and one of the most confused and misunderstood. The result of this confusion and misunderstanding is leaders who have become blind to what does and doesn’t work – Susan Fowler

One of my joys and strengths as a manager is motivating my team. I always try to have fun and engage everyone to bring out their gifts for success. In particular, I have a knack for coming up with zany sales contests that encourage everyone to participate and achieve. Rarely has energizing everyone and being an enthusiastic coach failed me. When I saw the book Why Motivating People Doesn’t work and What Does – The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging by Susan Fowler I had to read it. According to Susan, all of my contests, prizes, encouragement are key failures in motivating people. Huh? My insular management world came crashing down.

One of the key drivers that Susan introduces is that we don’t need to motivate our people. They are already motivated; we just need to discover what motivates each individual. Managers simply don’t know or don’t ask what motivates their people so there is a clear disconnect. Managers seem to think that people are motivated primarily by external factors such as money, cash prizes, trinkets, and promotions. If you can provide those things you are a great manager. It’s not that easy! Employees prefer more internal motivators that they can control such as challenging and interesting work, growth opportunities, or learning experiences. See the problem?

As managers, we tend to view what we think drives our employees and sometimes employees don’t even know what drives them because no one has asked. Certainly, some employees may never be happy. Motivation is a two-way street and a skill that some people refuse to embrace learning what motivates them and how to create motivation in their lives.

Susan introduces us to several models and tools in Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work. One of the key elements is the Spectrum of Motivation model. There are 6 motivational outlooks and you will quickly notice that 3 are an optimal state, which we call health food, and 3 are a suboptimal state, called junk food. This spectrum helps us to understand people and their outlooks on factors such as well-being, productivity, long-term performance. We want to steer people towards optimal factors for continuous motivation and success.

  • Disinterested motivational outlook
  • External motivational outlook
  • Imposed motivational outlook
  • Aligned motivational outlook
  • Integrated motivational outlook
  • Inherent motivational outlook

In order to motivate people you also need to understand the 3 psychological needs for motivation that people have. They are quite simple and you probably look for them every day in your own work. They include autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Without the presence of these factors, your people will never experience optimal motivation.

Moreover, in order to protect ourselves from distractions and for sustained motivation we all need to look inward. If leaders don’t do this themselves they will have an impossible job of bringing it out in their people. Internally we all need mindfulness so that we are aware of the here and now and can react without judgment. Often we catch a glimpse of this when we meditate and then use the skill every day. Second, we need to determine and live our own values. These are the standards that differentiate people. Last, we all need to know our purpose. This is a tough one for a lot of folks. We should all discover our meaningful reason for living our lives and live by our values.

Susan takes us on the motivation journey by sharing the skills that leaders need in order to “activate” the motivation within our people to reach the optimal state of motivation. Once we’ve made progress in this area we need to master the conversations that we have with people to impact their outlook. These conversations should take place when we need to motivate poor performance but also need to take place with our high achievers or those that have questions to maintain their motivation. To do this, leaders need to be prepared, trust the processes that Susan shares, and step back to reflect.

Along with the growth in motivation, we have challenges. Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work shares 5 beliefs that really damage workplace motivation. They are those that we run into daily and we all cringe because they leave out the human element.

  • It’s not personal, it’s business
  • The purpose of business is to make money
  • Leaders are in a position of power
  • The only thing that really matters is results.
  • If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work is like a story as we move through what motivates people and how to be successful in guiding them. Susan shares numerous tools and real life stories to drive her point across and to help us grow as leaders. The last chapter in the book has some helpful frequently asked questions in case you want additional clarification. Moreover, it’s refreshing to read how other leaders have struggled or accomplished the nuances of motivation.

This book kept me glued to the pages to learn what I was doing wrong in my motivational efforts. While I thought my contests, fun antics, and focus on results was the reason for our success, it wasn’t. Without realizing it I was doing the right things because I talked with my people individually to find their strengths and play to them. I learned what motivated them and how to bring out their best. Their optimal motivation remained elevated because I played to their internal needs without even realizing it. Are you ready to face the traditional methods of motivation and turn them upside down?


Lisa F. Kosak
Lisa F. Kosak
LISA is a learning and leadership geek who is also a fervent Master Gardener. Her passion for growth and observing phases of development dovetails with her devotion to helping people discover their gifts and use them resourcefully. Lisa’s distinct sense of purpose recognizes the talent of individuals and encourages them to build a repertoire of leadership experiences that will serve to impact others. She has a mentorship approach to working with people and strives to instill in them qualities of servant leadership. Lisa shares her ideologies and thoughts on her leadership blog (see link above) and also has an impact on people through a variety of social media channels. Through her book blog (, Lisa introduces readers to books focused on empowering leaders and growing their leadership influence. Lisa holds a Masters of Management degree in leadership and has 20+ years of experience in leadership, team-building, marketing, and business relationship building. She serves on a variety of non-profit boards and is passionate about bringing others together to proactively foster improvements, effect change, and impact communities in which they live and work. Lisa also manages the social media platforms for some local non-profits and is enthusiastic in promoting endeavors of concerned people to build community.

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  1. Thank you for summarizing this book so expertly. I found it full of work situations that were my own experiences and as I read your review it reminded me that these things taught about the workplace are relevant at home and other places where things need to be done.

    • This book is a wonderful reminder that motivation is an individual and personal experience and we need to empower people around us in ways that will inspire them to act.