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Note: This resource is part of our Moving the Bar in Your Career and Your Life, a unique approach to professional development series: My 3 Ps: Passion, Purpose, Potential. Click here to see the entire series.

One of my elementary school teachers that I most remember is Ms. Selby. She was a good teacher and I learned a lot in her history class. And I actually liked her quite a bit…even though she seemed to be in a sour mood a lot of the time. But what I most remember about Ms. Selby is that she had a thick paddle with holes drilled in it and if you misbehaved badly enough in her class you would likely feel the sting of her swatting your behind with that paddle.

These days this would never be allowed but, "back in the day," I was on the receiving end of her paddlings a couple of times (completely undeserved, of course). Most of my classmates didn’t cause problems or otherwise misbehave and therefore rarely got spanked, as the mere threat of "the paddle" was sufficient to keep them in line. A vivid memory to me, this is an example of motivation by fear where, essentially, our teacher used the threat of pain and embarrassment to keep us 5th graders in line. And, for the most part, it worked.

Then there was dear, sweet Ms. Cunningham who was forever cajoling her students with candy and extended play periods if we would merely complete our homework assignments and behave in class. Her approach also resulted, like Ms. Selby’s, in a fairly well-behaved classroom, much because the rewards were sufficient to alter the actions of some who would have otherwise misbehaved or not minded. Ms. Cunningham’s methods are a simple example of motivation by incentive.

Traditional Types of Motivation

Both of these types of motivation (by fear and by incentive) are based on external factors (spankings and sweets in my examples) to get a desired result. These two types of motivation are also found extensively in the workplace, where verbal abuse, threats of firing, and exhortations of "do better or else" occur daily. Similarly, it is common practice that bonuses, award trips, and other forms of compensation are used to motivate employees. The issue is that, since these forms of motivation are based on external factors, the modified behavior (to avoid the negative repercussion or to achieve the benefit) is often short-lived.

The very essence of fear is negative, and any results produced under the stress of fear is typically second-rate at best. Many of the same kids who behaved well enough in Ms. Selby’s class, misbehaved in other classes. Their change in behavior was situational and not long-lasting. Likewise, many students in Ms. Cunningham’s class acted well enough to get the rewards that were being offered, but behaved less appropriately when there were no special incentives. Again, parallels can easily be drawn with situations at work where employees change their behaviors depending on which of these two traditional types of motivation is utilized. Fear and incentive motivation can be used temporarily but for less than lasting results.

The Power of Attitude Motivation

As the modern workforce changes and evolves, incentive and fear motivation (the carrot and stick) are no longer as effective as they once were. And their motivational power diminishes after the promised reward has been gained or the threatened penalty has been avoided. A more powerful and sustainable form of motivation, motivation by attitude, motivates successful employees. When you are motivated from within, you are not dependent on other people or things. You are driven by a belief in yourself, your dreams, and your goals to maximize your potential. You want to achieve because that’s your life’s purpose, not simply because you want to gain an external reward or avoid a loss or punishment.

Motivation by fear is about avoiding. Motivation by incentive is about getting. Motivation by attitude is about becoming. When your goal is to become the best you can be, you will be self-motivated to exceed even your own expectations!

There’s a simple definition for this complex subject: "Self-motivation is an inner drive that compels behavior." What makes it complex, however, is that little word "inner," because what works for me may not work for you, and vice-versa.

What are your opinions about these various types of motivation? And we’d love to hear some of the ways in which you can increase your self-motivation.