Alternatives to Obligation

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Do not leave this page! How did that feel? If you’re like me, your reaction to the first sentence was something like, “Oh yeah! Just watch me.” Allow me to rephrase it: “If you read the rest of this article, you will find some practical ways to improve the motivational power of your communication.”

Communication will be more motivational when it has a clear central point that invokes the inner values and drivers of those whom you are trying to motivate. This is the big idea of what you would like others to do, the main action you would like them to take, or how you would like to influence your organization. Your big idea will be more powerful, however, if expressed in some form other than obligation.

Obligation is the least effective way to motivate people. It raises people’s natural resistance to being told what to do, creates unnecessary barriers to understanding, and is incapable of stimulating commitment. Obligation may at times produce conformity, but only if you possess sufficient power over the ones you are trying to influence.

A better strategy is to state your motivational idea in some form other than obligation. What are your options? First let’s look at a statement of obligation and then we’ll look at some alternatives.

Obligation: “From now on, everyone must adopt the servant leaderhsip model.” This is the basic obligational format. This form uses words like “have to,” “must,” “required,” “ought,” and so on. It is an attempt to compel based on authority, guilt, or fear. I’m not saying you should never use it; just that I think it’s overused. Try any of the following alternatives to spice up your communication and lower the defenses of your audience.

Prediction: “When you become a servant leader, your life will take on more meaning.” Prediction gazes into the future and paints a desirable possibility. It appeals to the desire in all of us to improve ourselves, try something new, and go where no one has gone before.

Exclamation: “What an amazing feeling it is to engage in servant leadership!” Exclamation gets others caught up in your own passion for the subject. Remember, however, if the passion is not in you, this form can be perceived as phony.

Definition: “Servant leadership is leadership from among rather than from above.” The basis of this form has to do with clarification. Sometimes the only thing people lack to get motivated is understanding. Definition is particularly useful when the message is about an unfamiliar topic.

Evaluation: “Servant leadership is just the right way to go.” This approach accesses people’s desire to do what is morally right.

Ability: “You can be a leader simply by serving people.” This form builds upon the power of encouragement. People too often hear about what they cannot do. The ability form says, “I know you can!”

Declaration: “Servant leadership is the key to productivity.” A simple declaration appeals to the persuasive power of the fact itself. This form works best when the fact is so significant it needs no further embellishment.

Interrogation: “How can a company get anything done through servant leadership?” Questions engage your audience’s attention. People like to be asked a question because their capacity to think is being honored. They also know they can expect some practical steps for accomplishing something of value.

Exhortation: “In our pursuit of success, let’s remember to be servant leaders!” This thesis form is great for arousing emotions but the effectiveness of exhortation depends a lot on the charismatic personality of the speaker.

Any of these forms will work better than obligation. You can try them all and then choose the one that works best for your specific situation. If you keep this list handy, it could be a powerful tool for when you’re tempted to say: “Just get out there and do it because I said so!” These alternatives can help you take a step back and grab a different tool from your toolbox. Why don’t you give it a try right now? Take some idea you would like to impress upon your organization and go down through the list expressing it in each of these ways.

I may have left something out of my list. If you have additional alternatives to add, please do so in the comments section below. Let me know what you think.

*I do not remember where I got this photo. If you know the photographer, please send me that information so I can give him or her due credit.

3 thoughts on “Alternatives to Obligation

  1. Great post! I can’t suggest any additional forms of motivational communication. I CAN tell you that I personally have a fall-back form, one that I utilize most often because it is comfortable. While I realized this about myself prior to reading this post, I didn’t realize that while I operate mainly in one form, I greatly appreciate other forms from others in various leadership roles.

    Do you think that this is atypical of most people you work with?

    • Hi thrufresheyes;
      Hey first I want to thank for coming by. I really appreciate it. I don’t think that’s unusual at all. Most people–one way or another–discover a few tools and get used to them and they become habit. That’s not a bad thing because it helps us to respond quickly when faced with a situation. But it’s always good to expand ones’ toolbox. So, you evidently have acquired a tool other than the hammer. and it works for you. So, consider adding a few more tools. Couldn’t hurt, right?

      Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      Greg

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