If You Want to Motivate Someone, Shut Up


Raise your hand if you say, “I know you can do it,” to motivate. Recent research suggests that feeling like you can’t motivates more than feeling like you can.

Verbal encouragement may not be
as encouraging as you believe.

Brandon Irwin’s research indicates that working out in the gym with someone who is better than you motivates more than having someone egg you on with verbal encouragement.

Motivate by pairing with someone more proficient.

Why it works:

“A big reason why superior partners are motivating is that people want to compare favorably with others.” (Brandon Irwin interview in HBR July-August 2013)


Surprisingly, exercise partners were virtual, on a screen. Even more surprising, silent virtual exercise partners were more motivational than vocal. It seems that comparing ourselves with someone more proficient motivates, especially if they aren’t encouraging us verbally.


Irwin studied motivation as it relates to virtual teams as well. The feeling of being part of a virtual team motivated most of all.

Affiliation with a team where your behaviors impact team
performance motivates most powerfully.

Irwin said, “What we think is that the feeling of being indispensable, which results from the shared goal, makes you work harder, especially when you know you’re the weaker link in the team. The bond becomes stronger.”


Irwin’s research focuses on exercise but his results suggest that organizational leaders:

Motivate best by pairing weak team members with strong.

My experience indicates that working with high performers – people outperforming me – raised my game. How about you?

What are the pros and cons of pairing weak with strong?

What success factors are most relevant when pairing weak with strong?

Kansas State University news release: http://bit.ly/11ukW3T