How Do You Get Others to Be Self-Motivated?
February 1972

“How Do You Get Others to Be Self-Motivated?” Ensign, Feb. 1972, 36

How Do You Get Others to Be Self-Motivated?

How do you motivate people to do what you want them to do? How do you get them to be self-motivated so that you don’t always have to check up on them or worry about a job getting done?

There is an adage, “A problem understood is half solved,” and fundamental to solving of any problem is an analysis of its parts. Take the problem of supervision within the Church as an example. Examine some of the variables in a teacher/officer relationship:

1. All teachers can improve. Some need to improve much more than others.

2. Some teachers have a great need to improve but do not realize it.

3. Some teachers realize they need to improve but don’t want to.

4. Some teachers want to improve but may not want help.

5. Some teachers know they need help and want it, but do not perceive or think of their officers or inservice leaders as sources of help.

Other variables exist with officers and inservice leaders:

1. Some strongly desire to give help. Others prefer to go through the motions.

2. Some who want to help don’t know how. They lack experience or knowledge or skill.

3. Some who are competent and know how to help do not have rapport with the teachers and are thought of as judges rather than as sources of help.

These are only a few of the variables in any supervisory or teaching situation and may appear in any number of combinations.

Because of many interrelated factors, any uniform approach to supervision is bound to fail in most instances, in the same way that prescribing the same pair of glasses for everybody would fail. The glasses may fit this person or that person by chance but fit no one by design.

Result? The traditional dilemma most supervisors, leaders, teachers, and parents find themselves in: how to supervise without threatening. For example, an auxiliary officer may visit a class with the very best intentions to help the teacher but finds the teacher visibly upset during the class and inwardly defensive in the helping visit afterward. Or a priesthood officer may hesitate to give needed reactions or constructive suggestions to a quorum instructor for fear of offending.

In such situations, one of two alternatives is usually taken: (1) little or no supervision of teachers unless things get way out of hand; (2) hovering supervision where the supervisor is too liberal with directions and judgments.

In the first instance, the permissive officer avoids the dilemma of supervision altogether and creates another inside himself: how to handle the guilt of doing nothing and the frustration of not seeing done what he feels should be done. The only alternative he can think of is heavy-handed “snoopervision,” which he feels would make him unpopular.

In the second instance, the authoritarian supervisor pushes ahead to get the job done. He tries to be tactful and diplomatic but feels that a certain amount of threat is inevitable and may be good. The only alternative he can think of is the soft, permissive one, which he rejects as weak and cowardly. And because he has the well-developed habit of blaming others or human nature for a lack of accomplishment—“They have bad attitudes,” “People are basically lazy anyway, and unless you push them, not much is going to happen”—he remains unaware that his well-intentioned yet faithless approach may actually be weakening the teachers.

Both supervisory approaches fail to produce quality results in the lives of teachers and class members. What can be done?

There is a third alternative based on the need for an individualized approach to supervision. It involves concepts and principles that have universal application and will greatly reduce the problems and dilemmas discussed above. It not only recognizes but uses and builds on individual and situation differences.

The Prophet Joseph Smith beautifully expressed this third alternative when he explained how he was able to so effectively govern the Latter-day Saints: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”

The philosophy contained within this majestic but simple statement embraces the most fundamental principles of stewardship, motivation, and growth, both of individuals and of institutions. It enthrones the spirit without neglecting the letter of the law.

This statement is the underlying attitude and unifying theme of the priesthood approach to supervision found in the new Supervision in Teaching manual. It is based on the following beliefs and assumptions:

1. Man is a free agent and has power within to act and to work righteousness without being directed in all things.

2. Man also has light given to him—conscience—which enlightens, guides, chastens, and confirms.

3. There are correct principles—natural laws—of life that are changeless and universal and that serve as guidelines. Our lives are to be based on the use of these correct principles but vary with changing situations and circumstances.

4. Therefore, if a teacher has been taught correct principles, he knows inside some specific things he should and can do to improve.

5. Regardless of what meetings are held, what counsel is given out, or what scurrying about takes place, nothing significantly improves teaching until the teacher really wants and decides to improve.

Now carefully consider the basic five interrelated principles of the supervision phase of teacher development. These five principles are applicable and adaptable to every kind of situation. (Study the real-life examples in the last section of Supervision in Teaching for many illustrations of this.)

1. Officers and inservice leaders teach correct principles.

2. The teacher governs himself by selecting and being guided by goals consistent with correct principles.

3. The officers and inservice leaders prepare themselves to be thought of as sources of help by the teacher and to actually be of help to the teacher.

4. The teacher calls upon officers and inservice leaders for help, and officers and inservice leaders give help.

5. The teacher gives to the officer an accounting of his stewardship. The vital element in establishing good rapport in the priesthood approach to supervision is that officers and inservice leaders, possessing enlightened vision, in a sense, see themselves as teachers of correct principles and as servants to teachers rather than as judges or supervisors in the traditional sense.

One of the principles that officers teach is the importance of carefully selecting goals that are consistent with other correct principles. With these self-selected goals, the teacher then governs or supervises himself. He calls on others for help. He also evaluates his own progress when he gives an accounting of his stewardship.

Notice how the responsibility for improving teaching rests on the teacher, who is the only one, in the last analysis, who can improve it. Notice also how the officer has abundant responsibility and opportunity to take the initiative in teaching correct principles and in preparing to actually be a source of help. Neither has to wait on the other’s initiative. Both have sacred stewardships.

I learned firsthand the power and beauty of these principles while serving as a mission president in Ireland. The area supervisor was coming to visit for the first time. I was somewhat anxious about this first visit, since I didn’t know him very well personally, keenly felt my youth and relative inexperience, and didn’t want anything to undermine the confidence placed in me. Frankly, I was somewhat guarded and apprehensive.

However, from our first meeting, the area supervisor’s attitude was, “What are you trying to accomplish and how can I help you?” His sincerity totally disarmed me. I felt he was there to help me, not to judge me. I therefore freely shared our problems and goals and asked for his help, and I had available the invaluable resources of a very experienced, wise, and inspired leader.

I remember a meeting we had with branch and district presidencies. Some who were voicing concerns looked to him for sympathy. He answered, in substance, “These, of course, are for your mission president’s attention. I’m here to sustain and help him. He will deal with these matters.”

What would have happened if he had been openly sympathetic with some of their views? Where would they have looked for leadership? Not to him, for he returned to London and had many missions and many stakes to supervise. He couldn’t possibly get involved on a regular basis in details of branch and district affairs. Instead, I felt sustained. How responsible I felt! How committed! How motivated to make things work! How open I was to his teachings of correct principles and help! If I had doubts or questions about the sincere concerns raised, I would privately ask him. His basic answer was, “You might consider what they’re doing in this or that mission.” This left me with the decision and the responsibility.

Those who have worked with hovering supervisors know how it undermines one’s sense of responsibility and initiative. You simply can’t delegate responsibility for results and supervise methods very closely. It you do, you take back the responsibility.

It is far better to teach correct principles and let others govern themselves in light of those principles. Then you have built all your judgments into those principles and you become their helper, their servant. Even if they falter or fail altogether, you always return to discuss the original assignment or agreement, and after either revising it or renewing it, you ask, “Now, what are your goals, and how can I help you?”

As in all things, the Savior again is our perfect exemplar. He was both teacher and servant. He taught his disciples also to be both teachers and servants. “… he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:11.) He told James and John that he came not to destroy but to save. In the parables of the pounds and talents, each servant evaluated his own stewardship. The Savior taught his disciples to be shepherd-type leaders with drawing power, not sheepherders with driving power, or sheep with no power.

Generally speaking, the application of this philosophy of teaching true principles and letting others govern themselves requires more social, emotional, and spiritual maturity than either the permissive or the authoritarian approaches.

Solid growth toward internal maturity is slow and gradual and orderly. It is a step-by-step process that can’t be forced or feigned. There is no shortcut. Essential steps cannot be bypassed or skipped any more than a child can learn to run before learning to walk, or a student can do calculus before understanding algebra.

This process can be accelerated through diligent, concentrated effort and by the power of the Spirit. But the law of justice, the law of the harvest (you reap as you sow) governs. The internal, emotional acceptance of this law is vital in overcoming the widespread habits of getting by on appearances and seeking shortcuts. Procrastination, criticism, and impatience inevitably accompany and reinforce these habits.

  • Brother Covey is an associate professor of organizational behavior and business management at Brigham Young University. A former bishop, member of the MIA general board, and mission president in Ireland, he currently serves as a member of the Church’s teacher development program committee.