Making Shift Happen

A colleague of mine manages a high-tech team. She was lamenting an experience trying to motivate a team member, who often works from home. The team was growing, office space was tight, and one of the only offices with four walls and a door belonged to this team member. The manager asked the team member if he would give up his rarely used office to another team member who would benefit from the added space and privacy.

The manager didn’t want to “demotivate” the first team member by demanding he give up his office, but she thought it was a reasonable request, given that he usually worked from home. His response was an unexpected and flat-out rejection. Interestingly, he admitted he didn’t feel good about himself and wasn’t proud of his decision, but he justified his stand by explaining that he had earned the space and it was important to his identity, rank, and position within the team.

The manager was disappointed by the outcome and blamed herself. She had recently heard that people are motivated by “status,” and she had made the mistake of trying to remove his symbol of status. She gave up on the idea, and the other team memer continued to labor in less than optimal conditions.

This was a missed opportunity. The manager couldn’t have motivated the first team member, but she could have facilitated a motivational outlook conversation to help him understand his own feelings and values regarding the situation.

A motivational outlook conversation is an informal or formal opportunity to facilitate a person’s shift to an optimal motivational outlook.

When Should You Conduct an Outlook Conversation?

Ultimately, a shift depends on how an individual internalizes the situation and the options. Motivating people doesn’t work because you cannot control someone else’s internalization process. If you try, the likely result is an imposed motivational outlook. Outlook conversations don’t guarantee a shift to an optimal motivational outlook, but at the very least, they provide an opportunity for growth and understanding.

With no real control or guarantees that a person will shift from a suboptimal to an optimal motivational outlook (or sustain an optimal one), you might wonder, Why bother? It is a good and valid question.

An outlook conversation may be appropriate when a situation is negatively affecting the individual—or the person’s outlook is negatively affecting the team or the organization. For example, outlook conversations are probably worth the effort when a person

  • Misses deadlines, resulting in negative consequences for others
  • Is performing below standard expectations on important goals or projects
  • Doesn’t seem to be living up to his potential in his role
  • Is often in a bad mood that permeates the workplace
  • Doesn’t take initiative in circumstances where it is needed
  • Displays emotion that is out of character or seems disproportionate to the situation
  • Is undermining the positive energy of others
  • Rejects helpful feedback
  • Gets defensive easily or often
  • Has values that seem out of alignment with the organization’s purpose and values
  • Is ignoring health and safety issues (his own or others).


You may need to have an outlook conversation with an individual for your own reasons—or for your own sake. For example, an outlook conversation may be appropriate when you

  • Think an individual needs help or you want to offer your support
  • See untapped potential and want to promote the individual’s growth
  • Stay awake at night thinking about the situation
  • Are afraid or hesitant to deal with the situation
  • Experience tension, stress, or impatience related to the situation
  • Experience an energy drain just thinking about it.


When I think about the angst my colleague had around the office issue, I believe an outlook conversation would have been good to have. However, as a leader, you need to determine if you are willing and able to dedicate the time and emotional labor to conduct an outlook conversation. Is it worth the effort for both you and the person you are facilitating?

Outlook Conversations—What Doesn’t Work

Less-than-successful outlook conversations I have conducted were the result of three specific “do not do this” reasons. I hope you might appreciate learning what to avoid from my awkward experiences. Thankfully, no permanent damage was inflicted to the already suboptimally motivated individuals. But these were definitely opportunities missed. To conduct a satisfying outlook conversation—for both you and most importantly, the beneficiary of the conversation—avoid the three common mistakes:

  • Do not problem solve
  • Do not impose your values
  • Do not expect a shift.


Do not problem solve

Bite your tongue. Take off your “I’ve been where you are and know how to solve your problem” hat. You will be sorely tempted to share you expertise, but do not confuse an outlook conversation with  a problem-solving session.

When people have a suboptimal motivational outlook, it is almost impossible for them to engage in problem solving, let along follow through on potential solutions. Facilitate a person’s shift to an optimal motivational outlook before proceeding to problem solving and action planning.

Do not impose your values

Don’t let your good intentions get in the way of your outcomes. One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is assuming another person holds or appreciates the same values.

Despite your good intentions, imposing your values on others tends to provoke an imposed motivational outlook.

Do not expect a shift

Refrain from “leading the witness.” Relax, practice mindfulness, and allow the conversation to take its course. The outlook conversation is not about you or your ego. Realize that a person may not shift during your conversation. The shift may be a “time bomb” that goes off when the person is ready.

You will gain understanding, but remember, the purpose of an outlook conversation is to guide individuals to their own understanding of their motivational options and then shift if they choose to do so.

Outlook Conversations—What Does Work

Practice patience. Follow the process. And be sensitive to what’s happening in the moment. You are less likely to jump into problem solving, impose your values, or lead with expectations when you do three things:

  • Prepare
  • Trust the process
  • Reflect and close



When I ask leaders what it takes to prepare for an outlook conversation, they typically respond with tried-and-true actions: clarify the topic, do your homework, check your facts, identify specific behaviors or examples as evidence, and so on. However, they almost always leave out the most critical aspect of preparation—shifting their own motivational outlook.

Preparing yourself may be the most important action for the success of your outlook conversation. Before entering any outlook conversation, check your own motivational outlook. Preparing for outlook conversations is an ongoing effort.

You need to be conscious and conscientious about the values you demonstrate as a leader. This doesn’t mean you become inflexible, dogmatic, or unreasonable when faced with alternative values during an outlook conversation. It does mean that you have a position where you can compare and contrast alternative ideas in the best interest of the person and the situation you are facilitating.

You probably know that your values influence your approach to leadership. What may be a revelation, however, is how much your values—and especially your people’s perceptions of your values—influence their quality of motivation. Research shows that the commitment people have to their leader and the organization is profoundly shaped by their perceptions of what the leader values.

To prepare, examine your own sense of well-being regarding the upcoming conversation. Identify your current motivation outlook and choose a more appropriate or desired motivational outlook if necessary. Then shift your outlook by linking your developed values to the upcoming outlook conversation—or consider how you will sustain the optimal outlook you have. If you have not shifted your own motivational outlook, how can you facilitate someone else’s shift?

Your shift to an optimal motivational outlook in preparation for conducting an outlook conversation enables you to give those you lead a generous gift—your mindful, non-judgmental attention.

Trust the process

Follow the three skills for activating optimal motivation as guidelines. Remember this caveat—if you cannot practice the skills of activating optimal motivation for yourself, it is unlikely you will succeed in activating them with others.

  • Facilitate skill 1: Identify the person’s current motivational outlook—Get permission to explore the individual’s feelings regarding her task, goal, or situation:
    • Does she have a positive sense of well-being or not? Listen to clues in her language; watch her nonverbal body language. (Does she use phrases such as “I have to” or “I get to”? Does she appear defeated, defiant, and defensive, or inspired and joyful?)
    • Is the individual experiencing a low quality or high quality of psychological needs? (Does this person feel in control and recognize she has choices, feel supported and have a sense of purpose regarding the situation, and feel she has the ability to navigate the challenges posed by the situation?)
    • Is the individual demonstrating low- or high-quality self-regulation? (Is this person practicing mindfulness, making a values-based decision, or connecting the situation to a higher purpose?)Is the individual’s motivational outlook suboptimal (disinterested, external, or imposed), or optimal (aligned, integrated, or inherent)?


  • Facilitate skill 2: Shift to (or maintain) an optimal motivational outlook—Perhaps the simplest and most direct way to help the individual appreciate his options is to refer to the Spectrum of Motivation model and explore potential upsides and downsides for shifting to a more optimal motivational outlook. That shift is most likely to happen through high-quality self-regulation. As a leader, you can facilitate the process through the MVPs:
    • Promote the individual’s practice of mindfulness. First, ask for permission to pursue the Power of Why technique. Then as you and the individual discuss the situation, ask a series of questions such as, Why is that important to you? Why do you think that is true for you? Why is that? The question “why” helps individuals process their situation at a higher level, peeling back layers of distractions that block their awareness of or a link to their psychological needs.
    • Help the individual align the situation with his workplace values. If it hasn’t happened in previous sessions, take the time now to help the individual develop workplace values. Ask open-ended questions, recognizing and acknowledging the feelings and emotions. Ultimately, the question you want to ask is, Do you see any alignment between your values and this situation?
    • Help the individual connect the situation to a noble purpose. As with values, if an individual does not have a sense of the purpose of his role, how he contributes to a greater good, or how he serves a higher cause, this is a good time to have the conversation. People will rarely experience an integrated motivational outlook without having a deeply felt, overarching reason that gives meaning to the role they play in a bigger context of work and life.


  • Facilitate skill 3: Reflect—Guide the individual through a reflection on the outlook conversation experience. What was helpful, awkward, challenging, and enlightening? If the individual experienced a shift to an optimal motivational outlook, inquire how she feels. What is different and why? If no shift occurred and the individual remains in a suboptimal motivational outlook, inquire how she feels. Listen without judgment. Practice mindfulness.


“Trust the process” may sound trite, but it is true. At their core, people want to be optimally motivated. They naturally gravitate to what is best for them and others when you use the three skills for activating optimal motivation in an authentic, and dare we say it, loving manner.


When do you close an outlook conversation? If you are practicing mindfulness, you will notice when the individual is running low on the emotional energy required to continue examining, exploring or shifting. When you are attached to your outcomes or expectations, you will be more aware of what the individual is experiencing in the moment. You need to know when enough is enough—for both the individual and yourself! Sometimes you might need to say, “I think you deserve more of my attention and energy than I can give you right now. Are you open to setting up another meeting?”

When you close, seek commitment from the individual to maintain his chosen motivational outlook or continue his examination, identification, and choice of a motivational outlook.

Discuss how the individual might practice high quality self-regulation and satisfy his psychological needs. Schedule maintenance conversations.

Recognize that when the individual chooses to engage in future outlook conversations with you, he experiences autonomy; your demonstration of support elevates his experience of relatedness; and using the three skills to facilitate an outlook conversation builds the individual’s own skill for shifting his motivational outlook any time he chooses, building his sense of competence

After closing the outlook conversation, you need to reflect: How do you feel about the outlook conversation? Do you have a positive sense of well-being or not? Why? Where were you challenged? Did you have to bite your tongue to stop yourself from jumping into problem solving? Why? How did you manage not to problem solve? Did you act on your own values by staying focused on the individual’s needs and not your own? Were you able to practice mindfulness?

Reflective self-examination is a major opportunity to grow as a leader. When we reach out to help others through outlook conversations, it is fascinating how much we learn about ourselves.

Blair’s Outlook Conversation Turnaround

Blair is a retail manager in an upscale department of a popular department store chain. She also happens to be my niece. One evening Blair excused herself from our dinner to take a call from the head of her department to discuss her intention to write up Randy, one of the department’s perennial top salespeople. When Blair returned to dinner, she was obviously upset as she explained how a once-fruitful relationship had deteriorated.

She had explicitly outlined expectations for the staff to promote an upcoming sales event through personal calls and e-mails to their regular customers. When Blair followed up with Randy, he had failed to make any calls. I asked her how she handled the conversation, given that she had knowledge of the principles in this book. “I did what you always recommend. I had an outlook conversation with Randy. I asked why he hadn’t made any calls. He told me he hated making phone calls, he couldn’t find a quiet place to make the calls, and he felt awkward promoting a sales event to his wealthy clients who have the money to buy items at full price.”

Blair is an excellent and natural listener, so I could picture her patiently noting Randy’s rationale. She told me how she identified his imposed motivational outlook and proceeded to facilitate his shift to a more optimal outlook.

“I gave him every chance to shift,” she told me, “but he still didn’t want to make the calls. I am disappointed with the outlook conversation and so frustrated with Randy that I am writing him up. There are times when it is necessary for people to pay the consequences for their failure to perform or for insubordination. This might be that time for Randy.”

I asked Blair to describe her process for facilitating Randy’s shift. She said, “I told Randy when I am asked to do things I don’t like doing, I remember that I chose this profession because of my love for design and fashion. I shared how exciting it is to sell pieces of art that people wear. I told him I value keeping my customers abreast of happenings in our department—treating them like part of our family because that is how I feel. I told him how our clients deserve to learn from the expertise he has gained from his training and years in the industry. I reminded him that he loves this industry, our store, and our customers, too.”

After hearing Blair’s description, I asked her, “What are Randy’s values?” She stared at me for a moment as she had her aha moment. She didn’t know what Randy’s values were. “It was all about me, wasn’t it? About my values, my love for what we do, and my perceptions of what I think Randy should value. I told Randy how I thought his autonomy, relatedness, and competence needs should be satisfied but never gave him a chance to figure it out for himself.”

Blair grabbed her cell phone, called her manager, and announced she would not proceed with Randy’s disciplinary action. “I have been talked off the cliff,” she explained. “I want to try another strategy before punishing Randy for not acting on my instructions.”

Curious, I asked Blair what she had hoped to gain by writing up Randy in the first place. Just my asking the question helped Blair realize she had resorted to the “stick” to “motivate” Randy. The stick would motivate Randy, but not as she intended. There was a good chance that disciplining Randy for his refusal to make phone calls would deepen his already suboptimal motivational outlook, guaranteeing he would quit and move to a competitor—or worse, would quit and stay.

Another learning for Blair was how focusing on the means Randy took to achieve his goal, rather than the goal itself, had limited his possibilities for successfully doing what they both wanted for him—enhancing client relationships and increasing sales. Blair’s reflection led to a realization that Randy did not have a suboptimal motivational outlook for selling; he had a suboptimal outlook for making phone calls to promote a sales event. Not only had she imposed her values on Randy, but from there she had jumped into problem-solving Randy’s excuses for not making the calls. She also missed an opportunity to bring the real goal into focus—increasing sales by providing customer service and information about a sale—paving the way for creative alternatives.

I can happily report that Blair has become skilled in outlook conversations. She facilitated me in one before I realized what was happening. I experience profound joy when my student becomes the teacher.


Susan Fowleris a senior consulting partner for the Ken Blanchard Companies, a leadership consultant and coach, and a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership program at the University of San Diego. She has co-authored several books, three of them with Ken Blanchard: Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager, Leading at a Higher Level and Empowerment. She has also authored the audio programs, Overcoming Procrastination and Mentoring.

Reprinted with permission from Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging by Susan Fowler, © 2014 Susan Fowler (Berrett-Koehler Publishers,

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