Watching the final game of the NBA playoffs Tuesday night was a great illustration of how people’s functioning can go up and down. The LA Lakers, historically and currently one of the top basketball teams, lost to the Boston Celtics by a record-breaking 39 points for a title-clinching game. Why?
Whether you are a basketball fan or not, do you wonder why people do what they do? This week one of the leaders I coach said he realized how much time he spent trying to figure out people’s motivation. He said, “As if once we know, it would make any difference…” He’s learning instead to pay attention to behavior. For example, if you’ve got a difficult board member, it’s more productive to notice what he does and when than to spend energy thinking about why he does it. Motivation is a tricky matter: how often do I even understand myself and why I do what I do, anyway?
The question “why?” is not that useful when we are considering other people’s behavior. In many ways it is unanswerable. Even if there is an answer, we’re not likely to be able to find it. And if we spend a lot of time considering someone else’s motivation, we’ll have less time to think through our own purpose, goals and plan.
Here are some questions that may be more useful:
“Who is motivated?” Working with people who are motivated to change or to make a difference is always more productive than trying to motivate or second-guess those who are digging in their heels.
“Why now?” What is going on in the larger organization that might be causing the overall level of anxiety to go up enough to affect someone’s behavior? For example, uncertainty about a transition in top leadership may translate into problem behavior at lower levels.
“What do I think?” Thinking through your own principles and goals is always a good use of time. And being clear about your own bottom line in relation to a particular situation or individual’s behavior may help them function better. If you know what you will and won’t put up with, your own anxiety will go down, which helps everyone. For example, in the case of a volunteer who is chronically not showing up, if you get clear that you’d rather replace them than scramble at the
last minute, you can take a stand.
When someone’s behavior becomes a problem, it’s easy to spend a lot of time, both at work and outside, thinking about them. Another question might be, “Are you thinking more about them than they are about you or their work?” If the answer is yes, turn your attention back to your own goals, which will help you get clarity about how to deal with them.
Remaining curious about others, and noticing how they function, can be helpful. This is not the same as asking “Why do they do that?” in frustration. Spending emotional energy on frustration (for more than the inevitable half-hour or so) will keep you from a thoughtful response to the behavior. Taking the time to think through the questions above, and how to respond, will help you move toward your goals.