What lies beneath: Understanding the motivations of others

Understanding the motivations of others

Understanding the motivations of others is an important skill to help you explain various types of behaviour in the workplace. It is easy to judge people’s behaviour without thinking about the deeper causes that might be driving it.

People don’t try understanding the motivations of others because it helps them feel superior

If you judge others in a shallow manner, it can often seem as if they are being unreasonable, illogical or simply stupid. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to do this than to look out for their real motivations because it makes us feel superior.

“Tony is so disorganised. I’ve never come across someone who makes so many mistakes.”

Maybe Tony is trying to handle too much work and is struggling. Does he need help managing a huge workload or understanding how to say no?

When you don’t know the whole story, you’re likely to arrive at the simplest possible conclusion

This person isn’t acting how I would like them to, so they must be stupid / incompetent / arrogant / malicious. When I label somebody with one of these negative words, I feel superior. They’re so stupid and I’m so smart. If I was in their position I would never do something like that!

The problem is, you’re not in their position, so it’s very difficult to tell if that is true. This is exactly why your brain can comfortably make the leap of logic that somebody is stupid / incompetent / arrogant / malicious without you needing to investigate it.

Often keeping your mind open to the possible behavioural drivers behind someone’s actions is enough to see that they aren’t necessarily the raving lunatic people are making them out to be.

Understanding the motivations of others: Scenario 1

Peter has been on your case all week, pestering you for estimates and “next steps” for a project. He’s previously shown no interest in this work at all and he’s not really your boss either. He’s really starting to get on your nerves.

Perhaps Peter has been handed the responsibility for this project and he’s under pressure from somebody who outranks him. Or perhaps Peter is uncomfortable with you being in charge of the project because you made a small mistake once that he still remembers. Perhaps Peter is a malicious terrible person. Which one is it?

Understanding the motivations of others: Scenario 2

Kate frequently publicly congratulates people on the work they’re doing using the all-staff email address. It really gets on your nerves. Can’t everyone tell she’s just one of those office sycophants, just trying to get ahead?

Perhaps Kate has been told in her performance review that she needs to be more of a team player. Perhaps Kate has been told by her boss that she is too negative. Perhaps Kate is genuinely happy for other people and doesn’t realise that sending all-staff emails is annoying. Perhaps Kate is just a really annoying person. Which one is it?

Understanding the motivations of others helps you to improve your workplace

When people are open and honest and speak transparently about motivations and behaviour, there is a chance to change something. This may not occur very often as some people like to see other people struggling, because it makes them feel better about themselves.

For instance, if I see another manager struggling to deliver a project, I can easily say to myself “He finds it tough too. It’s not just me.” However, this attitude isn’t really that helpful. Wouldn’t it be better if I was looking to be better at my job, rather than to accept the mediocre standard that I had achieved because it matched somebody else’s?

Truly understanding the motivations of others and their behaviour helps you to fix issues in your organisation. The problem is that it takes time and effort to sit down with somebody and discuss how they are feeling to discover the reasons behind their actions.

Some people like to see others in trouble because it makes them feel better about their own situation. When that person eventually leaves the organisation with their reputation damaged, is that really fair? Could something perhaps have been done to correct the situation before it happened?

Don’t sit idly by and let dysfunction rule your workplace. Understanding the motivations of others helps you to diagnose issues so that they don’t become part of the culture. It’s easy to watch somebody struggle while you feel superior, but it’s better to understand their issues and see if things can be improved.

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