Influencer QA

When It's More than Motivation

Joseph Grenny is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Joseph Grenny is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


InfluencerQDear Crucial Skills,

I just read the latest newsletter and find myself very frustrated with your response to your reader’s question about how to “motivate” apparently unmotivated teachers. You appeared to agree that a lot of teachers just don’t care—or are “morally asleep” about the need to improve education for their students.

Perhaps the person who wrote the question is not aware of the many responsibilities shouldered by teachers. As a veteran educator, I take offense to the classification of teachers as people who don’t care or are not interested in helping students improve. If this were true, we would not continue in a low-paying, poorly respected profession. Before you talk about motivating teachers to make change, consider whether their failure to attend these new meetings could be because of:

· Time: They may be overloaded with other meetings, tutoring, professional development, meetings with parents, prepping materials for the next day, or grading. Is the meeting scheduled after their contractual hours? (We do have family responsibilities.)
· Reform in place: Has the school, district, or state already initiated educational reforms that are non-negotiable?
· Observation: Before passing judgment about teachers not being interested, ask what is going on in the classroom?
· Communication: How was the invitation phrased and how much notice given?
· Shared responsibility: What are the other stakeholders asked to do?

Rather than consider these issues, you threw teachers against the wall. Maybe the concerned parent should drop the stereotype and do a little research first. And perhaps you should have addressed the negative assumption in the person’s statements.

Concerned Educator

A Dear Concerned,

Thank you for writing in and sharing your thoughts.

I asked our editors to publish your note because I think today’s “advice” is more contained in your letter than in my response.

You were absolutely right to point out my negligence to address the “story” this person may have told him or herself about his or her teachers. He or she attributed a lack of participation to a lack of motivation—and I bought into it thoughtlessly.

Equally important, I failed to offer advice for addressing the “ability” issues teachers face when trying to find time to improve—or implement improvements. Your note was a whack on the side of the head for me to use the very model we teach. Thank you for providing that wake-up call—and please forgive me for any offense I offered in my negligence.

So let me frame your critique of my response in terms of our own model. Another way of saying what you wrote is, “Joseph, you’re assuming this is exclusively a motivation problem. Could it also be an ability issue?”

Not only would I agree with that question—but I would also assert that ability problems are frequently disguised as motivation issues. When people seem to “not care” it could be they are burned out from pushing against bureaucracy and have concluded they are simply not able to win. I suspect some teachers just do their best to master their own classrooms and give up on the larger institution because of the structural ability barriers they continually face.

As you point out, structural ability barriers for these teachers might include overloaded schedules or limited tools and resources. For example, at Lakeridge Junior High, Tim Stay discovered that the school’s schedule made it nearly impossible for teachers to attend council meetings, implement best practices, and properly evaluate students’ progress. When Lakeridge changed the schedule from seven periods to four, teachers were enabled to attend to these additional responsibilities. What’s more, they wanted to. In this instance, ability barriers, not motivation, were stopping them from performing to their full potential.

Similarly, you point out there could be social ability barriers—barriers that result when others (including peers and district leaders) don’t provide the information or resources required to perform to potential. For example, teachers may lack support from administrators or meetings aren’t communicated properly. In this case, all the motivation in the world will not influence teachers to attend council meetings or help them improve the overall level of education.

In conclusion, I would be less than honest if I didn’t add that motivation is still a very important part of our model. I made reference to Tim’s work because he is a phenomenal example of using the Influencer model to turn around his children’s school. The work he and his community council—comprised of teachers, administrators, and parents—did, addressed both motivation and ability barriers. Ultimately, Tim’s success was the result of a full six source approach that addressed both sides of our model.

The bottom line: until you address both motivation and ability—until people are both willing and able to change—you won’t move the needle toward influencing new behavior. In Tim’s case, there was more emphasis on increasing ability than inspirational motivation tricks. And as you suggest, this is probably the case in most of our nation’s education systems.

Again, I thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention. I feel as passionate as you do about the good work our teachers do each and every day. And I am deeply sorry for having offered offense to you and so poorly representing our own beliefs about influence.

Joseph Grenny