When You Can't Seem to Motivate Someone

When You Can't Seem to Motivate Someone
Thomas Thompson
April 12, 2022
min read

Having trouble unlocking motivation for a team member?  The carrot and the stick just aren’t working?

It might not be your fault.

Your best tactics may fail to create urgency if you are dealing with a donkey.

Here’s why:

A few months ago my wife and I were mountain biking in Crested Butte.  We came upon a couple–he was on a bike and she was on a donkey–that was not moving.  My wife and I paused our ride to watch how this turned out.  The woman cajoled, she pulled, she pushed.  No go.  Finally after about ten minutes, the donkey decided he was ready to resume.  She climbed on and they came towards us.  As they passed, I helpfully yelled out, 

“Looks like you finally got your ass in gear.”

She was not amused.

As a leader of people, do you ever feel like this woman?

You are trying to motivate your team, to create urgency, but no matter what you try, nothing seems to work.

And unlocking motivation is  more important to figure out than ever.  According to a recent nonprofit business think tank, 30% of employees say their level of engagement with their work—is lower than six months ago. 

You need to figure out if you are trying to motivate a donkey or a thoroughbred.

Of course, I am not talking about the value of the person.  I am speaking to the issue of INTERNAL URGENCY and MOTIVATION.  

There is a reason the expression, “the carrot and the stick” originated with donkeys.  They are hard to motivate externally because they lack the internal urgency.

On the other hand, thoroughbreds are raring to go.  Their engine is running hot with internal urgency.  The biggest challenge for a jockey riding them is to control their pace and direction–so they don’t get off track or run out of steam.

When it comes to motivation, you have to assess whether you are dealing with a donkey or a thoroughbred.  Because you are leading one of three kinds of people:

  1. Donkeys.
  2. Thoroughbreds
  3. Thoroughbreds who think they are donkeys.

Confession Time:  I have never figured out how to motivate donkeys.

Oh sure, I’ve used short term carrots, like bonuses or praise, that seem to work a limited number of times.  And I’ve resorted to the “stick” of discipline, notes in their files, or 90 day cure plans.  But once at this point, you are probably looking to move them on towards greener pastures.

But if they are thoroughbreds who just think they are donkeys, then you have a chance to unleash them and help them run towards the finish lines with you.

How can you tell if you are leading a donkey or a thoroughbred?  

Six Questions to Unleash Thoroughbreds

1.  Are you CLEAR on what we need you to go?

Clarity is the Holy Grail of motivation.  When people are not clear, they are not motivated.  

Have you clearly outlined where you and the organization need them to go, and where they are currently.  This requires a clear and honest assessment.  

If they cannot see that gap between where they are and where they need to go, they won’t have the motivation to change.  Sometimes once they gain this clarity, they decide they do not want to go where you need them to, and they can either move on, or find another seat on the bus.

2. Do you have the TOOLS you need to get where we need you to go?

When people are doing what they are ill-equipped to do, it is demotivating.  Do they know HOW to do what you are asking?  What are the essential skills they need to do their job well?  What do you need to offer them to develop and grow them?

3. What is the problem you see at our organization that you would LOVE to tackle?

They may seem like a donkey because they lack challenge.  Could it be that they are ready for a new test of their abilities?  Sometimes the opportunity to explore a new challenge can be the carrot they need to get in gear with their current responsibilities.

4. Are you in the WRONG ROLE?

Sometimes you just have people sitting in the wrong seats on the bus.  They are competent and motivated…but just not in the area they are in.  Could a move to another area unleash them?  

Be careful.  If you move a donkey disguised as a thoroughbred around too much, they just might reveal they are really just a donkey.

5. What FEAR have you given power to?

Fear can turn thoroughbreds into donkeys.  It makes people hesitate, afraid they will make a mistake.  So they end up doing the bare minimum, or focus on what they know they can do well.  

This often connects to their understanding of price of failure in your team’s culture.  Consider the Biblical parable of the three stewards in Matthew 25.  The steward was afraid of how he thought his Boss would respond if he failed, so he did the bare minimum, literally burying his work rather than take a risk.

6. Do you understand the difference between POSITION and INFLUENCE?

Some people think, “If I just got that promotion or position, then I could really lead well.”  They get the order wrong.  Instead of doing well with what they have, their eyes are on the next rung, wondering why they are not there.  

This especially rears its head when you bring on new, competent thoroughbreds who begin to run fast, and it exposes the donkeys on your team.

They need to see that the pathway to promotion starts with influence.  If they are unclear, have them check out Six Ways to Gain Influence On Your Team.

These questions may expose whether you are dealing with a donkey, or a thoroughbred in disguise.  But consider: If you discover you have a donkey on your hands, is it worth the time and effort on your part to “get the ass in gear?”


Thomas helps leaders navigate what’s next.  If he can serve you in this, reach out to him HERE.

Photo by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash

I founded Thompson Leadership to come alongside leaders like you. Together, we will unpack your unique leadership, unearth your biggest challenge, and create an action plan to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
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