The Myth of Motivation

Understanding why people do what they do can mean significant improvements in how you solve your dealership performance issues.

Mark, how can I motivate my sales staff to fill out the floor traffic log?" The dealer asked, as she shifted in her chair. "Well … " (the perfect consultant beginning to any conversation), I started, "you can’t." She couldn’t have looked more disappointed.

"What do you mean?" She continued, "I thought you were going to help me learn how to motivate my people to do what I need them to do."

"Oh, you can get your people to perform desired tasks," I replied. "But let’s be clear about how you can do it and the strengths and weaknesses of each approach."
"Tell me more," she prodded.

Much like we did in the dealership that day, let’s work through this "people puzzle" together.
First of all, let’s dispel the myth of "me" motivating "you." I can’t motivate you do anything. You can’t motivate your people to do anything. Motivation is inherently intrinsic. People really only do things that they want to do. Significant and meaningful performance change comes from an intrinsic — or internal — driver.
As a manager or coworker, there are essentially three reasons why people perform tasks. Each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Knowing these three reasons can help you understand the options available to create the performance you desire.

People are typically driven to "do stuff" because of one of the following:

  1. Coercion — Performing a behavior to avoid pain or gain pleasure.
  2. Normative Behavior — Social influences that drive behavior.
  3. Enlightened Self-Interest — What a person gets out of performing a behavior.

Understanding these different aspects of human behavior can mean significant improvements in how you solve your dealership performance issues.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Few can forget the classic scene in the 1972 movie The Godfather (for those of you in the Millennium Generation, think The Sopranos). Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, was asked how he was going to get a Hollywood movie producer to give the lead role in an upcoming movie to a "family" member. The Don replied, "I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse."

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what the offer was; if not, use this as an excuse to watch this classic guide to problem solving. This is a great description of one type of coercion.

Typically, coercion has somewhat negative connotations, as the definition includes, "bringing about by force or threat." It is certainly one way to get people to do what you want. It’s not the best way, but it is certainly one way of getting things done. In the dealership, this punishment principle is employed many ways. While it’s never the best idea in terms of long-term behavior change, it does get things done in a hurry. The most common approach is a negative impact on compensation:

  • Didn’t hit your sales goal? You get paid hourly instead of participating in the commission plan.
  • Didn’t fill out the deal worksheet completely? You don’t get paid on that deal.
  • Didn’t fill out the floor traffic log? Your paycheck is docked a certain amount.

There are other ways the punishment principle is used. For example, in some companies, if an employee shows up late to work, vacation time is docked as punishment. Or, if one task isn’t performed, another is given to offset it.

The strengths of this particular practice are that it gets things done very quickly and virtually ensures compliance. The main drawback is that it never really ensures internalization of the behavior — they do it because they have to, not because they want to. Furthermore, when the punishment is removed, the desired behavior stops as well.

One great way to remember the drawbacks of this approach is the line from poet Samuel Butler, "He who complies against his will, is of his own opinion still." Very often, the repercussions of punishment are resistance and resentment. Not necessarily the building blocks of a great dealership team.

As an aside, there are state and federal laws impacting employee compensation. If you aspiring Don Corleones are thinking these are some great ideas, I haven’t explained my position very well. Re-read this section to understand the drawbacks. Also, you’ll need to check with your attorney to see if these practices violate any Federal or state laws, before you start making offers your employees can’t refuse.

Have I Got A Deal For You!

Another way to think about coercion is as an outside stimulus causing a person to act — not through punishment, but rather with a reward. This is the old "if you do this, I’ll do that" approach. Examples include:

  • A monetary spiff for performance.
  • An increase in commission percentage.
  • Bonus time off for extra work or a job well done.

Of course, these are much more pleasant experiences than punishment, but they too have positives and negatives. On the positive side, people typically perceive the possibility of reward as an exciting and positive encourager. But it isn’t always fool-proof.

Some people respond to the possibility of gain, and others don’t. I’ve seen people, given the possibility of earning an increased commission, say, "Yeah, whatever … I’d rather go home on time than have the extra money. I have kids, you know." If the reward doesn’t match what the recipient values, your likelihood of success decreases.

I’ve also seen the reward offer miss the mark totally. One manager, as an incentive to increase sales, offered dinner at a great restaurant with him and his wife as a reward. After the offer was made, employees were heard to grumble, "that’s a reason not to do it!"

And of course — even if the offer is appealing — after the reward is removed, the behavior typically reverts to its previous condition.

When In Rome

Psychologists call the following social phenomenon "normative behavior." This is when behavior is considered acceptable in the culture where it is performed. Yes, your dealership has a particular culture — every business does. In some dealerships, humor is an accepted and encouraged behavior. In others, if you are too lighthearted, you aren’t taken seriously. In some stores, you can stop by the dealer owner’s office at any time; in others, you need an appointment.

By the way, culture can be "tribal" as well. This means there can be different norms of behavior in different departments. Sales acts this way and P&A acts that way. Other tribal divides in this business include riders versus non-riders, cruisers versus sportbike riders, and brand versus brand.

This is a key to why some people do certain things and others do not. Why is the floor traffic log getting filled out in some dealerships and not in others? If, in one dealership, four salespeople fill out the log, chances are the fifth salesperson will fill it out too. Hey, everybody else is doing it! In other dealerships, if nobody is filling it out, why should I? No one else does.

Normative behavior is powerful, but tough to manage. And it is subject to the winds of perceptual change. If the group decides a task is no longer meaningful, guess what? It doesn’t get done.

A Powerful Path

What’s the strongest and longest lasting way to get someone to change behavior? A little notion called, "enlightened self-interest." This is why doing something is of critical importance to you personally.

This is the most powerful path to behavior change. Want an example? Imagine a 20-year, two-pack a day, cigarette smoker who is able to quit smoking overnight. What could cause such an abrupt behavior change stopping such a powerful and addictive force? A visit to a physician who tells the person, "If you don’t quit today you’re going to die before your grandson starts kindergarten."

This is an example of enlightened self-interest. Hopefully, working at your dealership doesn’t come with such dire circumstances — but there are ways to use enlightened self-interest in the workplace.


I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. Everyone is tuned into the same radio station: WII FM. Or "What’s In It For Me?" How can you use enlightened self-interest in your store? Does performing the task:

  • Save them time?
  • Decrease stress?
  • Increase commission?
  • Improve work relationships?
  • Create more interesting work?

Each of these could be meaningful to various people and the key to enlightened self-interest.

Back to our initial issue of the floor traffic tracking log. If someone isn’t filling out the floor traffic tracking log, show them how you use the log data to guide the dealership’s marketing and training activities. If floor traffic is down, perhaps more marketing is needed? Hey, what salesperson doesn’t want the dealership to do more marketing? More people in the store mean more sales and higher commissions.

If floor traffic is normal and closing ratios are down, perhaps there is a different issue. Maybe your salesperson needs (and wants) training to help them close more sales. Perhaps the link between floor traffic tracking and prospecting isn’t clear. Show them how the floor traffic log helps increase the effectiveness of their personal prospecting activities and how that increases their income. All of these examples demonstrate to the salesperson how filling out the floor traffic tracking log provides benefits to them personally — it tunes them into station WII FM.

When you are encouraging someone to perform a task, the real power is not in rewards or punishment. It’s not in trying to get the crowd going in one direction, rather it is showing the person how performing this particular task moves them closer to their goals.

Blended Approaches
All of these factors can stimulate someone to act. Coercion, normative behavior and enlightened self-interest all have a place in today’s dealership environment. Knowing when and how to use each is the key.

Machines are neat (well, except ’70s-era Harleys). People are messy. But knowing the three dominant drivers of human behavior can help keep your business running down the road to success.

You can encourage behavior, but you can’t motivate someone. Sometimes knowing the subtle distinction makes all the difference to improving someone’s performance.

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