Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

When It's More than Motivation

Joseph Grenny is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Joseph Grenny is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


InfluencerQDear Crucial Skills,

I just read the latest newsletter and find myself very frustrated with your response to your reader’s question about how to “motivate” apparently unmotivated teachers. You appeared to agree that a lot of teachers just don’t care—or are “morally asleep” about the need to improve education for their students.

Perhaps the person who wrote the question is not aware of the many responsibilities shouldered by teachers. As a veteran educator, I take offense to the classification of teachers as people who don’t care or are not interested in helping students improve. If this were true, we would not continue in a low-paying, poorly respected profession. Before you talk about motivating teachers to make change, consider whether their failure to attend these new meetings could be because of:

· Time: They may be overloaded with other meetings, tutoring, professional development, meetings with parents, prepping materials for the next day, or grading. Is the meeting scheduled after their contractual hours? (We do have family responsibilities.)
· Reform in place: Has the school, district, or state already initiated educational reforms that are non-negotiable?
· Observation: Before passing judgment about teachers not being interested, ask what is going on in the classroom?
· Communication: How was the invitation phrased and how much notice given?
· Shared responsibility: What are the other stakeholders asked to do?

Rather than consider these issues, you threw teachers against the wall. Maybe the concerned parent should drop the stereotype and do a little research first. And perhaps you should have addressed the negative assumption in the person’s statements.

Concerned Educator

A Dear Concerned,

Thank you for writing in and sharing your thoughts.

I asked our editors to publish your note because I think today’s “advice” is more contained in your letter than in my response.

You were absolutely right to point out my negligence to address the “story” this person may have told him or herself about his or her teachers. He or she attributed a lack of participation to a lack of motivation—and I bought into it thoughtlessly.

Equally important, I failed to offer advice for addressing the “ability” issues teachers face when trying to find time to improve—or implement improvements. Your note was a whack on the side of the head for me to use the very model we teach. Thank you for providing that wake-up call—and please forgive me for any offense I offered in my negligence.

So let me frame your critique of my response in terms of our own model. Another way of saying what you wrote is, “Joseph, you’re assuming this is exclusively a motivation problem. Could it also be an ability issue?”

Not only would I agree with that question—but I would also assert that ability problems are frequently disguised as motivation issues. When people seem to “not care” it could be they are burned out from pushing against bureaucracy and have concluded they are simply not able to win. I suspect some teachers just do their best to master their own classrooms and give up on the larger institution because of the structural ability barriers they continually face.

As you point out, structural ability barriers for these teachers might include overloaded schedules or limited tools and resources. For example, at Lakeridge Junior High, Tim Stay discovered that the school’s schedule made it nearly impossible for teachers to attend council meetings, implement best practices, and properly evaluate students’ progress. When Lakeridge changed the schedule from seven periods to four, teachers were enabled to attend to these additional responsibilities. What’s more, they wanted to. In this instance, ability barriers, not motivation, were stopping them from performing to their full potential.

Similarly, you point out there could be social ability barriers—barriers that result when others (including peers and district leaders) don’t provide the information or resources required to perform to potential. For example, teachers may lack support from administrators or meetings aren’t communicated properly. In this case, all the motivation in the world will not influence teachers to attend council meetings or help them improve the overall level of education.

In conclusion, I would be less than honest if I didn’t add that motivation is still a very important part of our model. I made reference to Tim’s work because he is a phenomenal example of using the Influencer model to turn around his children’s school. The work he and his community council—comprised of teachers, administrators, and parents—did, addressed both motivation and ability barriers. Ultimately, Tim’s success was the result of a full six source approach that addressed both sides of our model.

The bottom line: until you address both motivation and ability—until people are both willing and able to change—you won’t move the needle toward influencing new behavior. In Tim’s case, there was more emphasis on increasing ability than inspirational motivation tricks. And as you suggest, this is probably the case in most of our nation’s education systems.

Again, I thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention. I feel as passionate as you do about the good work our teachers do each and every day. And I am deeply sorry for having offered offense to you and so poorly representing our own beliefs about influence.

Joseph Grenny

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19 thoughts on “When It's More than Motivation”

  1. Betsy

    What a wonderful response. Thank you for being so humble and yet so strong. I am learning so much by your materials…have taught Crucial Conversations twice this year, am using it in marriage counseling, and have also read Crucial Confrontations and the cliff notes provided by my son on Influencer. I also read and print most of your emails for application. I so appreciate all that you have done. Thank you. Thank you.

  2. Craig Kuhlman

    It probably couldn’t be said any better than Betsy did. Amen! I wholeheartedly agree.

  3. Stephen

    Hmmmm. I second agreement with Betsy. Perhaps this explains why so many teachers (at least teacher’s unions) are usually so vociferously opposed to merit based pay and promotions, i.e. being evaluated by how well thier students actually learn and perform. Because they don’t feel they have the ABILITY to do it, not because they’re not motivated.

  4. Kathy

    Excellent response, Joseph. You have role modeled so many level of an Influencer that I can only reply with a grateful Thank You!

  5. Stacy

    Joseph I applaud your ability to take the feedback that you did and create it into a wonderful learning experience for us all! I always look forward to these e-mails in my inbox. Kudos to you and your team! Thank you for the transparency in which you operate.

  6. Jeff

    I agree w/ Betsy. However I’d also like to offer this perspective…the best, brightest and funnest teacher in the world won’t make a molehill’s difference in a student’s ability if that student does not have expectations of excellence. That expectation is either set at HOME or comes from within!!!!! It doesn’t come from the classroom. We often blame teachers for poor performance of our students. No doubt there are lousy teachers. However, responsibility for educating our nation’s childred belongs with the people who brought them into this planet. We are truly a blessed nation with excellent schools. However, we are unfortunately apethetic all too often when it comes to personal responsibility for raising our children. It’s the schools fault they did learn, it’s the community’s fault they turned to crime, it’s someone elses fault for any result deemed poor. I grew up in a poor area. Despite that, all 5 kids from my family went on to succeed. That happened because our parents (not the school, community or any other entity) set high expectations and demanded commensurate results.

  7. Parent

    FYI – parents are very aware of the responsibilities that must be “shouldered by teachers” (ouch!). It offends parents to hear preachy Educators whine about working in a profession that is not respected, under paid, and over worked (all not true). The Concerned Educator’s list of issues is really a list of excuses for doing nothing. If teaching is so bad, why doesn’t the Concerned Educator make a career change and work in private industry? Most of us are working longer hours, perform very demanding tasks at a high level, are constantly being critically evaluated / reviewed, and work in a competitive industry (goverment jobs are for life with great benefits). Joseph Grenny was much too hard on himself with his response.

  8. Jean Tobin

    My husband who was a 4,5,6th grade teacher for 30 years stated this fact many times. Sometimes, students come from such poor economic, mentally, emotionally and physical conditions that the students have a difficult time functioning. Once, he met the parent(s) and think wow this child is doing really well considering their circumstances. More pressure is put on teachers to take care of issues that should be handled in the home, such as parenting, appropriate behavior, enough food, etc.

    On the flip side, measurements are not the way to go. Teachers teach the measuring tools as opposed to teaching. Two relatives who are ADD, and Dyslexic have a difficult time with passing tests to get a certified diploma. Both have managed to graduate from college with four year baccalaureate degrees even though, they didn’t have the
    state certified diploma. This is another reason, teachers are out there
    twisting in the wind wondering what to do next.

    The state of Michigan pays their teachers very well. As an HR professional, salaries are figured from a 2080 hours whereas educators are compensated from a 1600 hours. I don’t buy the argument that teachers are underpaid whereas other professions don’t pay as well.
    Teachers will say they take work home so do many other full time professionals such as HR. Whom is usually the last one to go home.

  9. Rosco

    I believe we would benefit from a “classic” perspective here. There are at least three components required to affect the behavioral change sought in our teachers. We’ve discussed “motivation” (will) and “ability”, but we haven’t discussed “skill”. Having the skills to address the various challenges teachers encounter in their work environment is just as important as motivation and ability.

  10. Ralph

    This was an interesting exchange. Concerned Educator (CE) came forward with what could be considered a victim-villain-helpless (VVH) story and it felt like Joseph bought it. There is evidence in the original email that CE responded to that motivation was not the only issue and the book is all about that. Jeff seemed to call out the VVH story, but included a “whining” appellation that would detract from safety.

    So, here we are, all life-long students of Crucial Conversations – a key component of influence, right? The learning opportunity seems to be pretty important. The scenario we have just painted is that: 1) we have made a statement (Joseph’s original post) that is good and well-intended and probably accurate, 2) someone read into it a generalized attach on teachers, 3) we all know some teachers that are awesome and we don’t want to offend them, and 4) many of us also are working 10 hour days plus doing 10-20 hours/week on the side in what could be considered rough environments. There is more that could be said, but these seem to me like such common points.

    Really, isn’t everyone right to a point in this scenario? To me the critical question is “how do we respond after point 3 above, in a way that does not dilute the point that needs to be made?” I think Joseph tried to do that, but seemed to beat himself up to a point that his third-to-the-last paragraph (the “I’d be less than honest if I didn’t add…” part) seemed watered-down.

    Isn’t life wonderful that we can think through all of this and sort out how we approach such situations! Being programmers of our scripts and thinkers of our thoughts rocks!

  11. Beth

    Dear Joseph,

    Thank you for the honest feedback to this gentlemen’s letter. At first I was angered by his “attack” of you, but then your leadership shined very brightly and showed me that I was wrong for creating a story. To see someone such as yourself admit when your wrong and not always use the model perfectly made me feel the need to double check my own leadership and revisit my mistakes. Thank you for being a great example of how true leaders should be.

  12. Elizabeth Link

    Thank you to all for your responses. This has given a great deal of food for thought. First, I want to thank the educator challenging Joseph on his response. This took courage to challenge the expert! Second, I want to thank Joseph for having the humility to recognize the opportunity to improve his response. Third, thank you to all taking the time to make comments, which takes this issue in several directions.
    I am in the health care field, not education, but I recognize that we are all educators, whether it be to our children, patients, clients or general public. We all have the opportunity and responsibility to educate by sharing our knowledge. The difference is that educators are trained in educational process. This is a very special skill/art and some do it better than others, but I believe anyone entering this field, initially enters with a passion. Unfortunately this can sometimes be tempered by the frustrations encountered, whether these are administrative road blocks or limits of the students/families encountered.
    I myself am passionate about environmental health. I have attended many seminars on this subject but become frustrated when I can not stimulate change within my community to address these concerns. Some times I do not attend a seminar solely because the frustration of being powerless to implement change are more than I am willing to encounter/tolerate at that moment in life. This could be percieved by some as being unmotivated, but it is far from the truth; it is self preservation. It is important to balance motivation with ability.
    As I said, I am not a teacher but I am an educator when ever the opportunity arises. This allows me to pass on my knowledge to others who, hopefully, will take up the causes which I am passionate about and I can live vicariously through their accomplishments.
    Bravo to the teachers!

  13. Lisa

    I am sorry, but under pay is not what I consider a gym teacher making 95,000 a year for high schoolers. Our state pays teachers well. There are a lot of “bad” teachers which are under 10 year and can’t get rid of them. If you figure in holidays, vacations and summers off, not a bad deal. We all have pressures at our jobs. You sound like teachers are the only ones that have work. Every other career is below you.

  14. Peter

    I am responding to Joseph’s remarks and the concerned educator who took him to task. I cannot speak for the american education system but I am am certain there are similarities. I was a teacher for a very short while and the reason I left was the structure. I did not have the time nor the flexibility to teach the way I felt i should be able to. Many years later i returned to education but as a business superintendant.
    I was able to observe all of the changes that had taken place in 30 years and was floored to witness the degree to which structure had taken over and just how little time teachers and school principals as well could devote to anythjing other then the classroom exercises that are mandated and the many discipline and health related issues that schools now have to manage. Children on various prescribed drugs ,psychological
    issues requiring intervention,the insane need for protocls and administrative procedures with rules and time frames for appeals,and the list goes on. My point is that we expect teacher’s to be a lot more than teacher’s! We expext them to know and do both the workof a teacher and the work of a social worker and to make things a little more challenging we tie one of their hands behind their back! The issues in our schools today are very complex and require experts in many domains to succeed.Motivation and engagement come from passion and if that flame is not permitted to burn the results will be predictable.Teachers were I live are well paid as are the administrators, so the issue is not money (perhaps it is in the US) The issue in my humble opinion is freedom to teach by being able to make different choices on what gets taught when and how it get’s taught. Remove creativity from the classroom and you have mediocrity. An eternal optimist. thanks.

  15. Joseph Grenny

    Good points, Jean. And while I completely agree that parental influence is a huge determinant of education outcomes, the question I hoped to respond to had to do with influencing teachers to participate in the improvement process. I point that out because when we apply our “Influencer” model–it’s always important to keep the “actor” we’re trying to influence clear. My response–like yours–would be different if I were trying to influence parents vs. teachers. Both can play a role in improvement–and yet this question focused on the teacher as the actor.

    @Jean Tobin

  16. Joseph Grenny

    I’ve certainly seen this in technicolor first hand recently. My daughter just finished a 4-month internship as a Health Education teacher in our local junior high school. Her eyes were very much opened to the complex array of personal challenges her seven classes of students brought with them to school–every kind of socioeconomic, abuse, sibling, physical and other challenge you can imagine. She worried herself into a dither trying to make sure she just had lesson plans then discovered how challenging it was to adapt those plans to the individualized needs of hundreds of kids. When you add to that the myriad bureaucratic requirements a teacher must address–it’s quite a load.

  17. Mark

    I respect your humility in responding to the angry Educator with the tools that you prescribe! However I believe most readers will see the obvious. The “Educator” like many professionals has learned to use his or her vocabulary skills very well. They offer elaborate justifications for their own personal short comings, bad attitudes or just laziness. The diatribe of excuses and anger is a tired list of “poor me’s” that we have all heard many times before. Most of the statements (excuses) are personal opinions, Union banner phrases or just plain whining about things we all deal with in life. This is a great example of a victim story that people practice and perfect to gain sympathy and avoid responsibility. I have worked with an individual for many years that has mastered these techniques to the point that he has lost virtually everything that he truly valued. Sometimes you just have to call it what it is, otherwise your enabling.

  18. Joseph Grenny

    I guess I see it differently, Mark. While I think the way “Educator” expressed concerns could have been more effective, the central point about attributing all to “motivation” to quickly was right on target. I think attributing Educator’s concerns to “laziness” or clever use of “vocabulary skills”–aka manipulation–might be inaccurate and a “villain story.”
    I agree with you that it would be unwise to not consider motivation problems in addition to ability–but in my view my mistake was a mistake! Thanks for the comment.

  19. Jody Tobler

    Thank you so much for re-addressing this issue. I believe you did a phenominal job of both addressing the educator’s concerns and using good crucial conversational skills is doing so. Your ability to demonstrate mutual purpose while not allowing yourself to tell a story showed compassion and expertise.

    Thank you, again, for your good example,
    Jody Tobler

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