I’m continually surprised how a twenty year management career influences the way I parent. Strategies used in the boardroom regularly bleed over into my living room. Plus, if you’ve ever been the ‘boss’ you’ll understand it often feels more like babysitting. I was managing people a decade before my daughter was born and already seasoned at dealing with performance problems, attitudes, and expectation setting. I’m just thankful parenting doesn’t have an HR Department.
Of all the lessons I’ve learned about managing people, the most reassuring for me, as a parent is – I can’t motivate anyone. There’s a notion, peddled by public speakers and plastered on sentimental posters with soaring eagles or dudes rowing boats that imply people can be motivated; through charisma, resolve, and a few choice words you can inspire anyone to do anything.
It simply isn’t true.
Over the course of two decades I’ve never motivated a single employee to do anything. I’ve leveraged authority thanks to a corporate title to get something done, but that’s not motivation and normally ends in subpar performances that frustrate me even more.
The fact is, successful managers know the only way to motivate a team is by creating environments where those employees motivate themselves.
It’s a business principle that’s no less fitting in our job at home.
It may be the most annoying thorn in a parent’s side – our kids’ disinterest, even apathy, towards their education. It seems far too often parents want their kids to succeed in school more than the kids want it for themselves. Why do we look at their ‘C’ in World History with such anxiety while they blow it off with a shrug? Why is their 2.9 GPA apocalyptic in our eyes but they couldn’t care less? Why do parents seem to have more intense focus and drive for their academic success than they have?
For starters, we’ve all met our neighbor’s twenty something gas station attendant son living in the basement and the thirty five year old lifeguard renting a used Winnebago and we’re ashamed to admit that at the going rate our kids may be headed down the same path. We have the benefit of age and experience allowing for longer vision – most kids’ can’t see beyond five minutes.
But more importantly, we get pissed off because we know our kids are smarter than their grades reflect and we’ve seen what they can accomplish when they want something, we’ve observed flashes of their brilliance at the most unlikely times and it drives us insane when all they can offer are lame excuses. Our daughter fails a Calculus mid-term and her only response is ‘When am I ever going to use that stuff, anyway?’
Their lack of motivation and our fear they’ll never move out forces us to tackle the problem the only way we know how – we attempt to motivate them to see things differently – particularly how we see them. That’s our natural reaction; faced with their academic apathy we must devise ways to inspire them to greater appreciation of Algebra II and Language Arts, with an intensity that hopefully matches as our own. That carrot can be positive or negative but with both we often discover, as I did early in my management career, true and lasting motivation can never come through reward or punishment.
With parenting, as with business, the secret to motivating anyone is not in one-on-one endeavors but through environments where kids – or employees – motivate themselves. Whether it’s getting my sales rep to the next quota or my daughter to take that B in Science to an A, it will only happen if the inspiration and drive comes from within them.
It’s been my experience that to do so involves three basic steps.
- Purpose – Kids – or employees – must understand the ‘why’ behind what they are doing. Why is Trigonometry and Earth Science necessary in a world of Google? Why is learning about China in the 12th century essential in the twenty-first? Without an appreciation for why they need Literature, French, or any number of other seemingly dull subjects, motivation can never spark and catch fire.
- Accountability – My parents only asked about grades when they signed my report card every six weeks. Otherwise our conversations regarding school were limited to, ‘Is your homework done?’ Today most school systems post real time grades online providing regular opportunities for parents to talk with their kids about school, to drive home expectations, enforce accountability and detail consequences. The fact that we are merely paying attention can do wonders. Each week my kids and I have ‘grade night’, almost like formal employee evaluations. Together, we look at their grades, latest assignment or test scores, determine current subject grade averages, and reach consensus on what needs focus in the days ahead. “You have a 88.5 in Math, get a 95 on your test this week and you have an A in the class, what do you need to make that happen?”
- Encouragement – It’s vital I let my son know that 75 on his last Language Arts test can and must improve. We talk about what went wrong, correct the errors, and sketch out how to do better. While he must recognize I’m disappointed he must also feel confident that I haven’t given up and believe that he can and will do better next time. In practice, it’s encouragement tempered with expectation.
If you’ve managed one person or 100 these steps should be familiar. Ultimately our kids’ desire for academic success and their achievement of it rests on their shoulders. And no matter how much I may want it for them, the best I can ultimately do is create an atmosphere that compels them to want it more for themselves.