Tips for Lean Managers

How to Motivate People to Change, Part 1

By Jon Miller Published on January 30th, 2007

How to motivate people to change? That question was asked recently. It’s a good question and one that we should not assume we know the answer to. It is not a question that should be addressed in your organizations by professional instructors, consultants or highly paid motivational speakers on a caffeine buzz.
This is a central question to making change happen. Making change happen in a way that is good for people is what continuous improvement is all about. This question deserves some scientific attention. You won’t find the answers here, you’ll have to go to gemba and ask your own people.
I was introduced to Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs not in school (Motivation 101? I could never wake up for that class. Ha, ha.) but as something that one of my Japanese sensei casually referred to when answering the “How to motivate people?” question addressed to him some years ago. To our shame, neither I nor the American manager had heard of this American psychologist. It was not the first or the last time I would have to help a Japanese sensei scold some Americans for being ignorant of one or another important American sensei (Ford, Deming…).
The manager or change agent who ignores the basic fact that people must feel safe, loved and provided for before they can be motivated to change and achieve beyond what is known and familiar, is doomed to fail. People want to know “What’s in it for me?” when faced with change brought down upon them. Face the question, and make sure you’re building the pyramid, from the base up.
Success may come in the short term when motivation is through a combination of fear and reward centering on financial safety and security, belonging to a group and achievement of status, as Jack Welch’s approach to leadership and development of managers has proved. There is some question as to whether this type of approach to motivation is sustainable, and at the very least it is not one that can be applied to motivate 100% of the workforce.
When we ask how to motivate people to change, we should ask “What do our people need?” If the need is for a safe working environment with less fatigue and injury, offering more financial rewards or merit badges will not get you far. If financial security is the primary need, offering self actualization and opportunities for innovation and creativity will sound hollow and false to the people you are trying to motivate.
If you are asking “How to motivate people to change?” over a short-term horizon of less than 5 or 10 years, you will get a very different answer than if you ask the question with a 50 or 100 year planning horizon. Most of us may not work that long, but we do live that long and have a hierarchy of needs that remains with us throughout that time, as change inevitably happens to us.
Go to part 2
Go to part 3

  1. Ron

    January 31, 2007 - 11:29 am

    Nice blog Jon. Your point about Jack Welch is interesting. I cannot help but think of how some of his “students” have had a tough go of it outside of GE. This tells me that if respecting people is not top of the list trouble is inevitable.

  2. Pathre Rajendra

    May 3, 2007 - 9:31 pm

    Your Points mentioned on the page is interesting & Knowledgeful to me.
    Can you provide me more data on the same
    I will be very thankful if you do the same

  3. Jon Miller

    May 6, 2007 - 9:45 am

    Hello Pathre. My advice would be to study books and articles on the work of Abraham Maslow, motivational theory and on the hierarchy of needs. I am not clear what type of data you are looking for, but a local university or library may be able to provide you with what you need.

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