What motivates us to succeed? The story of Jake the student, or your employee:

by Jody Simpson, PhD (comments: 0)

Jake was 12 and in the 5th grade.  Upon recommendation of his kindergarten teacher and agreement from his parents, he had been “held back” to repeat kindergarten.  The main concern wasn’t his academic ability, but Jake seemed timid. He seemed reluctant to try new learning activities, didn’t want to talk aloud in front of peers to demonstrate his knowledge of letters, numbers, or basic concepts, and the teacher believed he needed a lot of guidance at school.  Jake had been described as “immature” when compared to peers.  As a 5th grader, Jake’s parents continued to be concerned that he did not push himself to succeed to the level of his ability.  His parents asked the school counselor if she would spend some time talking with Jake in an attempt to find out if he had an emotional problem.  The counselor agreed to see Jake and Jake was willing to talk to the counselor.  When asked why Jake didn’t try harder at school, Jake said “If I try my hardest, I might succeed.  If I succeed, then I will be forced to try even harder the next time to succeed.  As long as I am not trying my hardest, I can’t possibly fail because I try just hard enough to not fail.  When I don’t fail, I don’t disappoint my parents.  If I try my hardest and fail, then I will disappoint my parents.  Disappointing them would be horrible!”

Wow!  That seems like a convoluted route of thinking, but for Jake, it made total sense.  Jake was highly motivated by his parent’s approval and highly motivated to avoid failure.  But reaching his maximum level of success meant he couldn’t possibly maintain that level, therefore failure was inevitable.  To put it more simply, Jake was motivated by avoiding failure more than he was motivated by achieving success.  The same applies to each of us at all ages and in all aspects of life – relationships, in the workplace, and in education.  Are you motivated by “toward” or “away-from” goals?  Do you avoid trying new things because of fear of failure?  Which is the most motivating, achieving success or avoiding failure?  There are no right or wrong answers, just different answers for different people.  Most important is learning what motivates you. As a manager, it is important for you to know how to motivate an employee such as Jake.

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