Manipulation is NOT Motivation

In the annals of “you can’t make this up” would probably appear the following two stories about the failure of public education.  In this year (2013), within months of each other, come two stories from Buffalo NY.  The first was from the Buffalo News which explained how its elementary school students’ proficiency scores, on the new standardized tests, took a “sharp but anticipated plunge.” (Tan, 2013)  For example, only 31 percent of students in third through eighth grade met or exceeded the proficiency standards.

The second story reported how “More Than 90 Percent of State Teachers Rate As Effective.” (Paterniti, 2013)  How can this be?  Teachers are effective but students are failing?  You can’t make this up, right?  Yes you can.  You cannot only make it up but you can make it happen by confusing manipulation and motivation.  I call this confusion “Leadership Malpractice.”

The confusion between manipulation and motivation stems from an embrace of a false assumption.  Our educators, and many of our leaders, FALSELY believe people (employees and students) can be motivated.  The truth is students can be manipulated but not motivated. They are naturally motivated in a motivating context.  They must be manipulated in a de-motivating context.  Schools are creating a de-motivating context and are attempting to manipulate both teachers (with performance evaluations) and students (with standardized testing).  This is “Leadership Malpractice.”

Effective leadership embraces a different assumption: leaders can’t motivate people.  They can only create a context that allows natural motivation to occur.  Students don’t need to be motivated to learn because they naturally want to learn about things they care about and about things that interest them.  But, they must be manipulated in a de-motivating context such as public education.

I believe there are three key characteristics of a motivating context.  I call them the Triple “A”’s of Engagement and Motivation.


The first “A” is for Anxiety.   Anxiety is often considered a negative force (emotion) that causes stress and stagnation.    Positive anxiety, on the other hand, is the urgent emotional need to act before an opportunity is lost.   Positive anxiety is useful for learning and development.  A balance between challenging tasks and the skills a person (student and/or employee) needs to perform that task will generates positive anxiety.  This positive anxiety is required for engagement and necessary for learning.    Providing appropriate challenge to students (and employees) is not just appropriate but necessary for motivation.  Standardized tests attempt to do this but there is a big problem.  The tests are challenging for some, too easy for others, and too challenging for most.  This lack of balance damages motivation and therefore damages learning.  Students need choice to identify tasks that match their skills.  This leads us to the second “A”.


The second “A” is   for Autonomy.  Autonomy is the freedom to determine actions and decisions.  Autonomy is about freedom for self-government or self-management.  With autonomy the student (employee) decides when and how to act to solve a problem.  No authorization by teachers or administrators is necessary.

The school system has removed autonomy.  Teachers have no choice about curriculum, they have no choice about the tests, and they are being evaluated.  Therefore, they have less control over HOW to teach.  Motivation does not exist without appropriate autonomy.


The third “A” is for Advancement.  Employees need to see how their efforts truly make a difference to themselves and others.  This advancement must not just be progress for the sake of progress

Three elements are needed to achieve this advancement.  First, we must understand the aim of our actions.  Actions must be seen in a context of a higher purpose.  This means the “reasons why” must be made clear. Most often students are just told what to study “because it will be on the test.”  This is manipulation not motivation.

Secondly, we must have feedback from our tasks and that feedback should be immediate (or as close to immediate as possible) and frequent.  Without immediate and frequent feedback motivation is absent.  In public schools there is often a significant delay in feedback. Teachers often take days or more to grade papers and/or quizzes. The delay between action and information must be as short as possible to optimize engagement and motivation.

This combination of taking action toward a clear compelling purpose, receiving feedback, and seeing credible progress will enhance the experience of motivation.


I was making conversation with a 15 year old high school sophomore the other day.  He had written a paper, the evening before our talk, about the Spanish-American War.  I asked him to tell me more about the subject.  He told me it was about the reasons America fought that war.  I asked him to explain those reasons, mainly because I personally had forgotten those facts and was curious about it.  He told me, “I can’t remember.”  I said, “You wrote it last night and you can’t remember?”   “Yes” he replied.

This is an example of the legacy of the false premise, and the context of de-motivation it creates, that our leaders embrace in both public schools and workplace environments.  Our students don’t understand why a subject is important, they have little or none of the proper challenge, little or no autonomy to study what interests them, and they see little or no progress in their efforts and so leaders use manipulation.  The confusion between manipulation and motivation is alive and well and creating tragic results.  This is “leadership malpractice.”  We need a new model of leadership that embraces the correct assumption; i.e. people can’t be motivated but they can motivate themselves in a motivating context.


Paterniti, G. (2013, October 27). More Than 90 Percent Of State Teachers Rate As Effective. Retrieved October 29, 2013, from The Post-Journal:

Tan, S. (2013, August 7). Elementary schools see scores plummet in new state tests. Retrieved October 29, 2013, from

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