What Can We Learn About Motivation from a Tornado?

May 28, 2008

I spent the last four days scheduling volunteers for an organization supporting the disaster relief after last week’s tornado in Colorado. When I came home each evening, I would find another installment of a lively discussion about motivation on the mailing list for the Society for Technical Communication’s (STC) Management Special Interest Group (SIG). It wasn’t until the fourth day that I realized that my “day job” as a volunteer was also a lesson on motivation.

So, what did I learn?

  • For the right cause, people will do pretty much anything.

    For example, I found out at 6pm on Friday night that I needed to assemble a crew of 10 to unload a supply truck at 5am the next morning. Hard work at an insane hour, but I got commitments from everyone I needed within 3 hours. And, for every activity I needed to schedule, we had more volunteers than we needed. This response didn’t happen because I have some magical skill as a motivator; it happened because the need was critical.

    Most business objectives are not as clearly “right” as feeding disaster victims, but if your objectives make sense, are clearly communicated, and can be seen as productive for the organization, you’ve got a much better chance of having motivated people.

  • A strong group helps keep people motivated.

    Nearly everyone who volunteered came as part of a group, and not just groups like Red Cross and Salvation Army that exist specifically for disaster relief. Churches and other community groups were a big part of the effort. While there were a few stalwart folks who volunteered independently, they were in the minority. The reason is pretty clear; if you’re a member of a strong group, you have a motive to serve the group as well as a motive to serve the group’s objectives. The two reinforce each other.

    Given today’s highly outsourced, geographically diverse projects, most of which operate in an environment where downsizing is the flavor of the decade, it’s difficult to build a strong team, but if you can pull it off, it becomes really difficult for team members to remain unmotivated. They either get with the program or leave.

All of that said, motivation is internal. You can identify clear objectives, communicate them vigorously, create a strong team, and build a supportive environment, but they have to drink the Kool Aid, you can’t do it for them.

I believe that most people will be motivated if you do these things, but some won’t; they may be in the wrong place, be going through problems outside of work, or simply be one of those folks who never gets motivated by anything. When that happens, you can coerce them and get some results, but almost always the best thing you can do is find them a better job fit or get them out of the environment.


One comment

  1. You have that right about motivation being internal. And since it is, the only way to gain someone else’s commitment is to allow that person the unleash their own motivation.

    How? That is the easy part. Treat them with great respect by carefully listening to them and helping them in any way they say they need. Only in this environment will people unleash their full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation and commitment. This applies to business or any pursuit such as tornado disaster relief.

    Best regards, Ben
    Author “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed”

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