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Motivating Cavemen: Prehistoric Drivers in the Modern World

When are you the most motivated?  Chasing a huge opportunity?  Or trying to avoid a major problem?

Human motivation tends to boil down to two things: a desire for reward or fear of consequences.  We call it the light of the solution vs. the heat of the problem.

Unfortunately we humans can be a lazy lot.  Change expert Donna Brighton says, “People are more motivated to avoid pain than they are to change and get to a better place.”  We’ll slow down when we see a cop (threat of ticket) but not for the promise of safe driving.

Blame evolution.  Our caveman ancestors survived by avoiding problems.  Don’t get eaten by a bear.  Avoid burning flames.  Throw away the rotten food.

Over the last thousand or so years the world has changed, immensely. We have running water, a stock market, and iPhones.  Unfortunately, our brains haven’t evolved.  We’re still biologically programmed to be fearful and avoid risks.

But sometimes, when our basic needs are met, we ARE motivated by the desire for a reward, the glowing light.

Our ancestors responded to reward when they started growing crops, instead of wandering around hunting wildebeest.  The reward of sustainable food was enough to drive behavior change.

In my work with leaders, we assess motivation through the dual lens of fear and reward.

The modern version of a bear chasing you is competition, or the fear of being out-innovated and financially underperforming.  Instead of seeking the reward of sustainable food, we now seek income and recognition.  In social situations, fear of rejection from our tribe is a compelling motivator.  Rewards are social status and pride.

If you want to motivate someone, you have to get specific.  What’s the fear and what’s the reward?  Can you turn up the heat of the problem, or offer the great light of the solution?

Recently, one of our clients was working on an initiative to retain more top talent.  She pitched the executive team on continued training, a more thorough onboarding process, and better employee benefits.  But they weren’t buying in; it seemed like fluffy non-essentials.

In our coaching conversation, she expressed her frustration, finally throwing up her hands saying, “If all of our good people leave, this organization will have no one to lead it.  And without good leaders, we will die.”

In that moment she turned up the heat of the problem.  I suggested she go back to the executive team and say exactly that.  Once they saw the risks, she got the funding, and even some gratitude for proactive avoidance of a bad consequence.

Now let’s get personal.

My father was a banker.  He loved being a banker.  Growing up, we sat around the dinner table talking about his clients, the people he helped buy a home or business.  He found an incredible amount of purpose and fulfillment at work.  As a child, I assumed adult work was meaningful and exciting.

Years later, I joined the world of work myself and discovered over half of all employees are disengaged.  But because my father had shown me the light, I knew meaningful work was possible.  So, I kept trying until I found made a career with purpose and fulfillment.

If you want to motivate someone else, or even if you want to motivate yourself, think about the potential fear and the potential reward.  What will you gain if you act?  And more importantly, what will you lose if you don’t?