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Not motivated? Try the reverse


Practicing reverse motivation may be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to helping staff members achieve their goals, relates columnist Dianna Graves.


Practicing reverse motivation may be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to helping staff members achieve their goals, relates columnist Dianna Graves.


Putting It In View By Dianna E. Graves, COMT, BS Ed

My e-mail inbox has been inundated recently with advertisements for web seminars focusing on the topic of staff motivation tips for managers. I signed up for one to be sure I wasn’t missing any philosophical pearls that might help my staff be its best.

I have had managers ask me to visit their practices to help with the clinic flow and technician continuing education and to help ensure that the office (technicians/front desk/telephone center) is running at peak efficiency. But when they ask me to help with their staff motivation, I politely tell them that I cannot do this for them. This is something the staff needs to do for itself.

You might think that I have finally gone over the edge. Here is my philosophy on motivation: no manager can motivate his or her staff. Motivation is something that occurs inside each person, and no one can change someone else’s motivation level.

I can point out ways that someone can improve as a technician, and maybe even as a person, but these are my opinions to be listened to . . . or not. Similar to the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Managers can cheerlead for their employees to strive for personal excellence, to push their standards higher, and to reach for their personal stars, but they cannot make them do any of those things. They either want to or they don’t.

And therein lies the rub: Motivation of anyone but yourself is out of your hands.

So, I do not adhere to motivational pearls. I help staff members find their own pearls and then give them the tools to achieve their goals. Sometimes the best way for that to happen is to practice “reverse motivation.”

What is reverse motivation?

Instead of telling someone that he or she can do something, try telling someone that you don’t think he or she can do it. The response will tell you where that person is in his or her mind and the potential ability to achieve the goal.

The first time I experienced this was after I had just graduated from college and was doing a job totally out of my field of training. I was working in a traffic safety group outside of Boston. It was a fairly large, prestigious, engineering group. My title was safety technician. But, really, I was a glorified graphics assistant adjusting the fonts on hundreds of pages of landscape and traffic acetates each day for the city of Boston and surrounding areas. No responsibilities-just a pile of acetates to get through every day. I was playing softball at night and living life.

My boss was a hard-driving, taskmaster who did not tolerate fools well. Sadly for all of us, he constantly considered us fools and the ultimate bane of his existence.

After a year and a half, he pulled me aside one day. He told me that he was letting me go, because he had no clue where I was going in this field. He was smarter than me, because I had no idea either. He said he would give me 3 months to find something else.

I was dumbfounded, but it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. Shortly after, I was accepted into the School of Ophthalmic Medical Technology in St. Paul.

On my last day, he asked me what I was going to do with my life. I told him I was going to the school.

He replied: “A technology school? Save your money! You don’t have the technical stuff in you . . . . I just don’t see it working for you!”

For 2 long years, I did everything I could to succeed at the school. I graduated with a solid “B” average and then passed the COMT test. The whole time I was living for that one day, and it came 3 months after graduating.

I was in New England and walked into my former boss’ office. He jumped up, smiled, and welcomed me-and when I had a word in edgewise with him-I said: “Leo, I graduated from school and passed my test and am now certified. You were wrong-and I wanted you to know it!”

He replied: “I knew you could do it, but you didn’t. So I figured I would give you a parting kick in the pants and see if you took the bait. Good job.”

I was totally confused. Until I realized that he was right.

What got me through the school was not really motivation but a skewed definition of motivation to prove him wrong.

Taking the bait

Years later, I tried this approach with one of my own students at the school. She was a young gal who really didn’t seem to want to be in the program, but was there anyway. And soon became the bane of my existence!

Each visual field class, she sat in plain sight and loudly yawned. Her head would bob throughout the lectures. Her classic move was to click her pen over and over until I stared her down.

I pulled her into a room about 4 weeks into the semester and said: “What are you doing here?”

She replied: “You called me into the room!”

“No, what are you doing here in this program, taking the space of someone that really wanted to be here?” I asked. “You’re wasting my time and your money because you have to pass my class-and the practical-to graduate, and it isn’t going to happen from what I have seen so far.”

She glared at me and walked out without looking back. I advised the program director of the discussion and warned that we might be minus a student soon.

And then I sat back and prayed she took the bait. She took it-hook, line, sinker, and boat!

At the end of the semester, she walked through the final with an “A” and then the day of reckoning: the practical. She was controlled and focused and she performed an excellent visual field.

After the practical, I always have a debriefing of students’ skills. We sat like wary grizzlies in a very small room. I said: “Thank you for proving me wrong.”

She countered with: “I worked my tail off this semester to prove you wrong and to hear you say that!”

She is now working in Colorado and, from what I hear, is a darn good technician. And she even smiled and joked with me at the last continuing education meeting.

Of course, I would have been happier with that if it hadn’t been during the middle of my lecture. But, everything in time!

Dianna E. Graves, COMT, BS Ed, is clinical services manager at St. Paul Eye Clinic PA, in Woodbury, MN. Graves is a graduate of the School of Ophthalmic Medical Technology, St. Paul, MN, and has been a member of its teaching faculty since 1983. She can be reached at dgraves@stpauleye.com.



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