The “Matt Foley” Flaw and Genuine Motivation

Leaders are mistaken to think that people are not motivated.  Rather, people are simply longing for needs they cannot name.

Twenty years ago, the late Chris Farley performed a comedy routine on Saturday Night Live. The sketch depicted a family with two delinquent teenagers. Dad hires a speaker, “Matt Foley,” to motivate his kids into better behavior. In addition to his disheveled and overweight appearance, Matt shouts insults at the teenagers, frequently loses his temper, and wallows in self-pity. Foley’s trademark line is warning the teenagers that they could end up like himself, being “35 years old, eating a steady diet of government cheese, and living in a van down by the river!” The routine concludes when his speech has impacted the teenagers, but only because they don’t want to be like him.

Farley’s hilarious shtick is a depiction of motivational talks that do anything but motivate. Many motivational efforts are intended to get people to do something that they really don’t want to do. They are thinly veiled attempts to cajole people into delivering someone else’s agenda. Responses to these efforts are usually negative because they are symptomatic of a foundational flaw in leadership thinking.

One of the primary reasons our attempts to motivate people don’t often yield the desired results is the assumption that motivation is something a person has or doesn’t have. Motivation is often described quantitatively: how much motivation does she have?

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does

Susan Fowler, a senior consulting partner for the Ken Blanchard Companies, recently wrote that an important truth emerges when we explore the nature of motivation.1 People are always motivated. The question is not if but why they are motivated. Fowler explains that genuine motivation is rooted in three human needs:

  1. Autonomy – our need to perceive we have choices.
  2. Relatedness – our need to care about and be cared about by others.
  3. Competence – our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges.

So the real story behind motivation is as simple and as complex as whether or not these needs are satisfied. People long to learn and grow, to make positive contributions, and to build lasting relationships. When leaders sincerely strive to meet others’ needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence, we don’t need the carrot or the stick. “Matt Foley” is no longer necessary, because these primal motivational forces are within us all.

1 Fowler, Susan. Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2014.

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