05/24/2012 07:58 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

How to Motivate Someone

To motivate another person, you have to appeal to their values. This may seem straightforward, but it isn't. Too often we try to motivate others by indoctrinating them in our values rather than by appealing to theirs. A classic example of this is the football coach who tells his team that the next game will be a test of their character. We have assessed thousands of athletes and found that, as a group, they do not care much about their character. We asked, anonymously, questions like, "Agree/disagree: I try to behave in accordance with a Code of Conduct," and many of them responded, "disagree." It makes no sense for a coach (or anyone else) to try to motivate players by appealing to values they don't have.

People have a natural tendency to think their values are best, not just for themselves, but for everyone. People who discover how great it feels to win think they have learned something about human nature -- that winning feels great -- when in reality they have learned something about themselves. Individuality is much greater than is commonly supposed. Although competitive people like to win, many others dislike keeping score and, thus, are de-motivated by competition.

We have a tendency to try to motivate others by indoctrinating them in our values. Some teachers, for example, believe that everyone is born intellectually curious. Faced with overwhelming evidence that some students are not interested in intellectual pursuits, they try to teach these students the joys of intellectual life. They are not appealing to the values of the students but are trying to indoctrinate them in their own values. This doesn't work.

Some hardworking parents try to motivate their laid-back adolescents by telling them how important it is to be an achiever. But laid-back adolescents aren't interested in success; if they were, they wouldn't be so comfortable with their laid-back lifestyle. Instead, they value leisure and work/life balance. If you push them too hard, they quit altogether.

Some employers use bonuses to try to motivate their employees. But only some workers are motivated by extra money. Others are motivated by a need to feel competent, and still others need to feel they are making a contribution to society.

How can you learn the values and goals of someone you might want to motivate? My colleagues and I have administered questionnaires to more than 60,000 people in North America, Europe, and Asia. We have worked with students across the country, workers here and in Europe, and business executives of major corporations. We have spent almost two decades collecting evidence of 16 psychological needs common to us all and deeply rooted in human nature. These needs are acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility, and vengeance. They are described in my book, Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate our Actions and Determine our Personalities. All human motives seem to reduce to the 16 needs or to some combination of them.

Scientific psychologists are finally getting around to understanding motivation. My colleagues and I try to understand people by asking them, "What are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish?" Surprisingly, many psychologists do not ask these questions because they assume that conscious motives are superficial. Instead, they ask, "What happened to you in childhood? How do you feel about your parents?"

We are learning that people are motivated to assert their values. So if you want to motivate someone -- a loved one, a student, or employees -- you would be wise to focus on what they care about.

For more by Steven Reiss, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.