The 5 Be’s of Motivation

by  Guy Harris  |  Leadership Development

It’s not true in every organization, but it is true in many. Managers (leaders) often don’t understand their employees. They don’t know how to motivate, inspire, and correct people effectively. As I work with my clients, I hear the same questions repeatedly: “How do I get my employees to …

  • Quit complaining?”
  • Do more than the bare minimum?”
  • Contribute in meetings?”
  • Show up on time?” etc.

I also hear all kinds of answers for each situation. Some proposals are good, and some are not. The good suggestions show an understanding of human nature and an effort to apply behavioral principles. The bad ones usually feel good to the manager, but they violate some basic principle of human relations and interaction.

Human behavior is a complex subject. However, events that appear to be random, isolated behaviors actually fit into predictable patterns for most people. If you understand the patterns, you will know what to do in most situations. I’ve developed the Five Be’s of Motivation to reduce some of these patterns to five easy to remember and apply principles.

So, let’s get started…

1. Be Positive

People pretty much do things for one of two reasons: to avoid pain or to pursue pleasure. As a leader, you constantly work between these two options. If you use negatives – like verbal reprimands, threats, or other punishments – to drive behavior, people will do just enough to avoid the pain. You will condemn yourself to bare minimum effort from your employees. If you focus on rewarding good behaviors, you improve the odds that you will get cooperation and extra, discretionary effort rather than conflict, complaints and bare minimum performance.

Noticing unacceptable behaviors and stopping them with punishment is easy. It takes effort to recognize good behaviors and praise them. You need to do both; but the more you recognize the good, the less likely you are to see the bad.

2. Be Specific

Make sure you speak only about specific behaviors. Whether you administer discipline or offer praise, the more specific you make your words the better.

Emotional involvement (anger) from a negative situation often makes specificity a bigger challenge during discipline. For example, an employees consistently challenges you in meetings. Many leaders get angry with the situation and tell the employee to “stop being rude and inconsiderate.” Unfortunately, “rude” and “inconsiderate” are interpretations rather than behaviors. A better statement would be, “I don’t appreciate it when you interrupt and challenge me. I see those behaviors as rude and inconsiderate. I won’t do it to you, and I don’t expect you to do it to me.” (I suggest you do this in private.) Depending on the situation, you might take further disciplinary action based on company history and workplace rules. Whether you take further action or not, focus on specific behaviors and not your interpretation of the intent or motive behind the behaviors.

Here are some examples:

  • Rude, inconsiderate, disrespectful, arrogant, obnoxious, flighty, unfocused, smart aleck, and pushy are interpretations.
  • Interrupting, rolling eyes, speaking loudly (or softly), shrugging shoulders, looking away, walking away, and tone of voice are specific behaviors.

3. Be Certain

People generally act based on what they expect to happen to them in the future. Whether it’s avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure, it’s still about expectations for the future. Your employees need to know — without a doubt — what to expect from you based on their actions.

Make sure that everyone clearly understands the rules of conduct in your workplace. Ideally, you will write down anything that is mission critical to your operation. I don’t suggest that you make your employee handbook look like the Code of Federal Regulations, but you should have a few well-written and clearly defined behavioral expectations for your business. People need to know the rules. They need to know what to expect when they follow the rules – and when they don’t.

4. Be Consistent

Consistency works in close partnership with Certainty. It is Certainty’s twin in the daily struggle to create a high-performing, results-oriented team. If you don’t consistently apply your workplace rules, your employees will never develop a sense of certainty.

Consistency applies to both positive and negative behaviors. If you say that you will reward certain behaviors, then always reward them. If you say that certain behaviors are unacceptable, always act to stop them.

5. Be Immediate

Act now. When your employees do something worthy of praise — do it now. When they need correction — do it now. Delayed consequences have very little impact on behavior.

I’ll illustrate the point with my behavior.

I like cheesecake. Eating cheesecake offers me both immediate and future consequences. The future consequence is negative – I could develop a weight or blood pressure problem. The immediate consequence is positive — it tastes good and gives me pleasure. When I have the opportunity to get cheesecake, I find it difficult to resist even though I understand the negative consequences. Why? The immediate, certain positive tends to overshadow the future, possible negative.

Acting immediately has an added benefit when the behavior is inappropriate. If the behavior continues without correction, you are likely to get angrier every time you see it. As you get angrier, you will probably have more difficulty keeping your response proportional to the behavior. Act now and you will be better able to maintain self-control.

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What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  11 May 2011  |  Reply

Guy, thanks for the great post. I especially like the point about being immediate. We do appreciate things we can value in the present. Many managers have a challenge with this because they’re not in and around their people. For me the hard part about learning to be immediate was to Be Present (not just physically present but interested, engaged and paying attention to help). Many middle managers are more “present’ with their bosses than with their team. We must Be Present to be able to Be many of the other things you mention above.


Deborah Costello  |  11 May 2011  |  Reply

I was struck by the same point Mike. By being immediate, we can first positively reinforce the things we would love to see repeated. There is a direct connection between the speed of the reinforcement and the likelihood of repeat. The second part is being able to head off potential problems before they spiral out of control.

Good reminders in this post! Thank you!

Ellen Eckhardt  |  11 May 2011  |  Reply

Thank you, Guy. These are great! I just jotted them down in my journal…with the acronym “P.S. cc I” That way, I will always remember to remind myself of what I may suggest to someone else. Great post!!!

Guy Harris  |  12 May 2011  |  Reply

Mike – Thanks for the feedback and the additional insights.

Deborah – Thanks for adding your thoughts.

Ellen – Please pass them on. Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad that you can find practical use for these ideas.

Ben  |  13 May 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for this, Guy. This is a very informative post, and a great resource for managers. A great supplementary post for this can be found at DrakePulse, at:

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