Finding Your Motivation: A Lesson from Theater

There’s a taboo in business, that when you’re not motivated you should just fake it. Just get the work done and don’t talk about the fact that you’re not interested in doing it. It’s my opinion that this is a dangerous practice.

When I’m directing an actor, I can give her a thousand individual movements, inflections, background details, and so on. (As a manager, I can give a thousand instructions, contextual details, orientation materials, etc.) But what finally connects with the actor to make something magical is when she realizes what “she” (in her role) wants. Give someone a reason to do something and she will do it well.

The reason (or “motivation”) is individual and specific: it applies to this person performing this action, and not in any other time and place. For the most part, it’s up to the actor to discover these motivations, but a director–a leader–has to be ready to help find them.

Good actors know when their actions aren’t properly motivated. It’s an intuition: I don’t understand what I’m doing in the context of my reasons for doing it. And when a good actor can tell her action isn’t properly motivated, she goes to her director to work it out.

When was the last time one of your people came to you asking why? Why don’t I feel motivated about what I’m doing? There are things we just have to do, but if someone is spending a full day or more working on something he doesn’t see as important, you’re looking at a critical disconnect–a point of feedback that might tell you something important about what you’re doing and whether it will be successful.

I would like to challenge you to spend a trial period focusing on reasons (“motivations”) instead of instructions, particularly with your more experienced people who already know how to do things, but even with newer people who may have to discover or ask you about the how. You may be surprised how connecting your players with motivations to act will lead to better outcomes, even if the instructions you give them are less specific. Instructions keep people in the world of the routine. Motivation puts people on a path to create stories.

And once you’ve positioned your team’s motivations, watch for places where the motivation doesn’t connect: this is a disguise for problems with your assumptions, your division of labor, and other ways you can make improvements.

Motivating by Story: A Lesson from Theater

When you go to see a play, you may sit down with some assumptions about the people you see on stage. Among them may be an assumption that all those people want to be there.

A stage or a film set isn’t substantively different from the environment on a work team–the egos may be a little bigger, but if you’ve spent any time leading people, you’ve probably seen some big egos already.

One of the difficulties you might not expect lies in getting the cast on the same page. A director’s ability to interpret a script (which is tantamount to meeting the requirements of a project) depends on each actor individually working with that interpretation.

The irony is that for everyone to be on the same page, everyone has to be on a different page. Having a big-picture understanding of Hamlet finding out about and then exacting revenge for the murder of his father is a great perspective to have, but it’s not necessarily the story each actor is playing. Each person in the cast has to have a unique story in order to effectively and convincingly fulfill his duties.

To Laertes, Hamlet is a story about revenge–against his sister’s boyfriend for driving her to insanity and suicide. To Claudius, it’s a story about the ambition of a man who wouldn’t accept the cards dealt to him and worked to improve his station.

Similarly, one of the most important motivators in a team is not to see the big picture, but to see the small one–to see my story. It’s too easy to clock in and check out when I see what I’m doing as serving someone else’s story, and I’m just selling a bit of my life for a paycheck. To live fully within the work I’m doing, I have to understand: what am I doing right now to live my values?

Do you know the stories your people are telling? Do you know not only their value, but their values? Every level of organization has separate values: a nation, a business, a team, an individual. If you know their values, it will be easy to help them see their own stories in the larger story you’re telling together.

“Sure,” you might say, “I can show a key player how his individual story weaves into the big picture. But there are some people–interns, new hires, people from other departments or other companies–who tend to see their roles as small and interchangeable. And they are,” you may even say, “because they don’t have the specialization or depth of involvement to create unique value.”

There are two roles in Hamlet that are so famously insignificant and interchangeable that Tom Stoppard wrote a play about how insignificant and interchangeable they are: Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

These two characters have no distinguishing features and serve only to move the plot forward. The actors could easily clock in and check out. But a good director doesn’t ignore even the smallest part, particularly if she already has star players locking down the major roles. The flavor of the end product can be disproportionately affected by these seemingly insignificant roles.

Ultimately it comes down to the same objective: Even these small, interchangeable players have to see what they do as the integral, project-defining work that it is. Losing even the least significant roles confuses and degrades the end product.

Could you have a successful product without it? Of course–it happens all the time. I’ve seen successful projects with much more significant roles that were poorly executed. But attention to the least of your team members, and the ability to integrate their stories seamlessly into the final product, is what separates a passable director from a great leader. Learning the individual stories of each of your players, and weaving each of them into the whole, can take a project that is unlikely to even be finished and turn it into an incredible success.