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Up & Down the Pyramid

This completes thoughts expressed in a post May 29, 2011 at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com.


            Motivation is a big deal in any discussion of leadership or team performance. How do you motivate people? Answer: You don’t. If motivation happens, it’s because they did it, not you.

            Motivation, as a practical matter, arises within a person, not from the outside. You do what you want to do, not what you think you ought to do. When you want something enough, you go for it. Motivation drives action.

            That’s why leadership is largely salesmanship. The leader convinces people to do what the leader wants because they come to believe it will give them something they want. And their motivation has to be strong enough to overcome whatever level of discomfort the action requires. Before the enticement was offered, those being convinced weren’t going to act. They may even have been hostile toward the idea.

            If you are to avoid the trap of talking yourself out of doing what’s tough, you must learn how to do this to yourself. You’ll develop ways of convincing yourself to handle things crisply and confidently, no matter what. You'll create your motivational incentives.


            So along comes Abraham Maslow, with his Theory of Human Motivation, in 1943. It’s been all over the place ever since, especially in classes and workshops on self-awareness and personal selling.

            It’s called the Hierarchy of Needs theory, and it tracks the motivational progression people go through. The graphic presentation is a pyramid with five levels. Each level must be achieved in turn before the person can or will seek a higher one.

            The lowest level is survival: We must have food, water, breathing and other very basic needs first. When one or more of them has not been satisfied, nothing else matters to us. If you can't breathe, you're not in good shape for a violin lesson.

            The other levels, in succession, are for safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization (an admirable and noble state of mind).

            There’s much going on at each level, but the one that relates most directly to this discussion is the bottom one. If you’re scared stiff, you’re not capable of caring about your job or money, or even your friends or your career. Creativity is beyond you.

            You’re paralyzed, in the grip of intense fear. You don’t have to really be in a life-threatening situation to have the psychological response that is close to the real thing. Stage fright, for example, can do that – you’re so gripped by this awful prospect that you can’t think of anything else.

            Picture your worst nightmare related to the job, or to life out in public. Got it? OK. Now take your emotional temperature. That’s what we’re talking about.


            Perhaps the most damaging human failing is our inclination to avoid what we’re afraid of. For example, conflict is at the top of most people’s list of fears, and we can permanently limit our potential if we don’t develop effective personal tools to overcome conflict aversion. So we prepare ourselves to manage it properly.

            We must consciously build in ourselves the motivation to confront where we are on the pyramid at any particular time, especially after something has had a significant impact on our emotions. When I’m in a  rough patch, feeling embarrassed or threatened, I want to be conscious of that – not just affected by it. I want to kick in the appropriate internal mechanism to move me back up the pyramid.

            I want to succeed, no matter what is going on.

           The answer is to think thoroughly about this matter, to see the pyramid as a handy measure of where I am, and use self-talk as the tool to trigger motivation for positive motion.

            While the stream of self-talk is huge and uncontrollable as a whole, you can search out just the part of it that is directing your attitude and behavior right now, and use predetermined directives to aim your thoughts at strengths and solutions.

            This requires practice, and it takes discipline. You’re never secure when you’re up the pyramid, but you can become adept at persistent upward mobility. There are many rewards in doing so.


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