April 1, 2013 fm

INTRINSIC The Series: Empathy

I’m absolutely convinced that intrinsic motivation can only flourish in a team if the motivator has an empathetic personality.

According to Merriam-Webster EMPATHY is:

  1. the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
  2. the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

Extrinsic motivation, the opposite to intrinsic motivation, is based on external factors like power (e.g. military), threat (e.g. loss of job), or incentives (e.g. bonus or higher salary). But would you ever love to follow Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket? Would you ever love to go to work every morning once you’re facing the threat of losing your job?  Would you ever feel more passionate about your professional tasks because you might gain 5% more at the end of the year?

A great example of extrinsic motivation is Alec Baldwin’s (Blake) motivational speech in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. What is considered in the web one of the best motivational speeches ever, to me as an intrinsic motivator this is nothing but a psychological catastrophe. A nightmare of human behavior. Blake insults them, Blake threatens them, Blake is a true a*****.

Of course, extrinsic motivation works as well. Blake is successful in his way. He perfects the carrot-and-stick approach by offering three options to the sales team: a Cadillac, a set of kitchen knives, or being fired. But see for yourself…

Now – the question is: Do you want to impose angst, fear and pressure on your team in order to improve their performance?

These guys are light-years away from being intrinsically motivated. These guys hate Blake. As a motivator I don’t want to be hated by my team. I want to be loved by my team. I want to be loved by my team as Leonidas was loved by his 300 Spartans.

One of the main drivers of positive feelings towards the motivator (or leader) is empathy.


On Changingminds.org you find a good summary of benefits of empathy:

Empathy connects people

When you empathize with me, my sense of identity is connected to yours. As a result, I feel greater in some way and less alone. I may well, as a result, also start to empathize more with you. In a therapeutic situation, having someone else really understand how you feel can be a blessed relief, as people with emotional problems often feel very much alone in their differentness from other people. The non-judgmental quality can also be very welcome.

Empathy heals

Therapeutically, it can be a very healing experience for someone to empathize with you. When someone effectively says ‘I care for you’, it also says ‘I can do that, I can care for myself.’ 

Empathy builds trust

Empathy displayed can be surprising and confusing. When not expected, it can initially cause suspicion, but when sustained it is difficult not to appreciate the concern. Empathy thus quickly leads to trust.

Empathy closes the loop

Consider what would happen if you had no idea what the other person felt about your communications to them. You might say something, they hate it, and you continue as if they understood and agreed. Not much persuasion happening there! The more you can empathize, the more you can get immediate feedback on what they are experiencing of your communications with them. And as a consequence, you can change what you are saying and doing to get them to feel what you want them to feel.


All the theory, all the Full Metal Jackets, all the Blakes apart – for me it’s common sense. I only follow a person willingly if I feel that this person cares for me. My auto-motivation will only grow in an environment of understanding, awareness, and sensitivity.

It’s up to you. You can be Blake and get some results. Or – you are Leonidas and make it into the history books!

Be empathetic!


Read other posts of this series…

Comment (1)

  1. Once upon a time, the Japanese Taiko asked his three main Generals a question:
    – If the cock doesn’t sing when you want it, what would you do?
    – If the cock doesn’t want to sing, kill it!, said the first General
    – If the cock doesn’t want to sing, I will oblige it to sing, said the second
    – If the cock doesn’t want to sing, I will make it love to sing, said the third

    Some years later, the Taiko died, and the three Generals fought each other for the control of the country.
    The winner of the war was the third General and started the Fukugawa period.

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