Breakdown: How to be a Good Motivator – Highlights from “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) Ch. 1-4

If you are like me, you may never get a chance to read all the books you would like to. There is just not enough time in a single lifetime to absorb it all. That is why I wanted to breakdown “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) by Alan Loy McGinnis to share the key takeaways that I got out of it.

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“Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) is a guide to be a good motivator. It provides the reader with 12 principles to bring out the best in people through motivation. The 12 principles are as follows:

  1. Expect the best from people you lead
  2. Make a thorough study of the other person’s needs
  3. Establish high standards for excellence
  4. Create an environment where failure is not fatal
  5. If they are going anywhere near where you want to go, climb on other people’s bandwagons
  6. Employ models to encourage success
  7. Recognize and applaud achievement
  8. Employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement
  9. Appeal sparingly to the competitive urge
  10. Place a premium on collaboration
  11. Build into the group an allowance for storms
  12. Take steps to keep your own motivation

In this post, I will break down the first 4 chapters. The first chapter is dedicated to “The Psychology of Motivation”, which was not explained academically but rather in plain, every day english. Chapters 2-4 cover the first three principles to bring out the best in people. If you like it, please look out for future posts where I will share highlights from other chapters.

Chapter 1: The Psychology of Motivation

This chapter highlights the notion that motivation is not always internally sourced. There are all kinds of external motivators that influences one’s drive. There is a need for inspiration. Have you ever thought of someone as being lazy, lacking motivation? It could be that they just have not been sufficiently motivated by any leadership, that nobody has acknowledged their potential and put in the effort to use it. Your employees don’t want to feel unengaged. They want leaders who can teach them to enjoy their work.

Some people can confuse motivation for manipulation. Manipulation is persuading someone to behave in a way that supports your best interests, not theirs. Whereas motivation is where you identify compatible interests and goals then develop a partnership to achieve them.

The famous poet Goethe once noted that “the greatest genius will not be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources”. What he is trying to do here is warn you not to fail to achieve great things because you failed to inspire others. This was an impactful statement for me. It highlights that there is power in relationships.

Chapter 2: Expecting the Best

This chapter is dedicated the first principle to bring the best out of people: expect the best out of the people you lead. It highlights that if you set the bar low, the people you lead will meet that expectation, but if you set the bar high – to greatness – people will tend to put in great efforts to live up to that.

Not only should you set the bar high for things like productivity, but you should also expect that others have the best of intentions. If you treat people like they have good intentions, you will get good things out of them. This chapter encourages the reader to see the good side of people, picking out the best in them and building on that. To do so, you need a genuine desire to help others.

This is in contrast to the authoritative policing style boss who always looks for the worst in people. It makes people defensive, protective and forces them to close the door to their inner potential. If you make people feel defensive and productive, they won’t be confident enough to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and become the best they can be.

So, to bring out the best in people, you need to set up high expectations. Recall that Eminem song “The Way I Am”. In the chorus he rhymes “I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t, then why would you say I am”. This lyric gives insight into the human psyche, that we are moulded by others’ expectations of us to an extent.

This is summed up in what some call “The Pygmalion Effect”. It is derived from the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” where a professor helps a woman become an elegant lady. He does this by always treating her like one and the result was that she lived up to those expectations.

Goethe also sums it up succinctly: “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he already were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be”.

Everyone has the desire to do great things and to be somebody. The goal for you as a leader or motivator is to tap into that drive by showing them that you believe in them. If you show that you believe in them, they will try very hard to live up to those expectations.

Chapter 3: A Tailor-Made Plan of Motivation

This chapter is dedicated to principle #2, to make a thorough study of the other person’s needs. To be a motivator, you first need to understand what the person you are trying to motivate wants. They may not know this themselves, so you need to be patient. You may not get it out of them in the first conversation. If you don’t know what someone wants, then how can you motivate them to attain it? Remember, if you motivate others to do what you want, against their own interest then it is manipulation.  

Motivation is not some form of hype. Good motivators make motivational plans tailored to individuals they are trying to motivate. To do this effectively, you need to understand their beliefs, aspirations, and what they love (and don’t love). You need to understand their system of needs and desires. McGinnis says it well “People are driven by a bundle of interests. So, save yourself time and frustration by carefully appealing to their interests.”

The real key to this chapter is to tailor your leadership to the individual. For example, if someone is a pacifist, don’t motivate them using military code or stories about war. George Bernard Shaw said it succinctly “The only person who behaves sensibly is my tailor. He makes new measurements every time he sees me. All the rest go on with the old measurements

McGinnis gives two reasons why you should seriously study those you want to motivate:

  1. It gives you powerful data to inform your motivational plan
  2. It is a compliment to those you are trying to motivate. You are not only studying them, but you are also building a relationship with them and showing them genuine interest in them as individuals. Remember Bob Chartier’s note from “Handcrafted Leadership” that shows the association between relationships, possibilities, and action.

Some leaders will lead with the mindset of “follow me, I am the strongest! I know more than all of you.”. But the best leaders lead others by first saying “tell me about yourself”. They know that if they listen long enough, their people will explain how to motivate them.

Chapter 4: A Commitment to Excellence

This chapter is dedicated to principle # 3, to establish high standards of excellence. It highlights that you don’t have to sacrifice positivity and encouragement to be hard on standards. The best companies out there encourage and accommodate employees’ individuality while enforcing standards.

Being tough on standards does not mean that you have to be an oppressive leader. Being tough on standards simply means that you care. Standards are born to uphold excellence and the well-being of the organization as well as the employees within it. They are meant to act in the best interest of those invested in the company. So, if you are not tough on standards, you are not supporting the employees or the organization.

So how do you reprimand employees who are not meeting the standards? McGinnis provides four pieces of advice:

  1. Do it immediately. The longer you wait, the less impactful the reprimand will be. Don’t wait for a performance review, do it right away.
  2. Before you reprimand, confirm all the facts about what happened. You need to ensure that your data is accurate. Refrain from accusatory statements and blame.
  3. Be specific. Once you have all the facts, be very specific about what went wrong. Criticize behaviour, not the person or their motives.
  4. Do not hesitate to show your feelings. McGinnis states here to show your feelings of anger, annoyance, and frustration. However, please be mindful not to dramatize those emotions. Do not sacrifice your emotionally intelligent demeaner and high morale in your office for the sake of a reprimand. If you can refrain from being angry or harming your relationship with your colleagues, then don’t.

Remember that there is immense power in a challenge. People are not inspired when they are not expected to do much. People are inspired by a challenge. William James put it bluntly, “need and struggle are what excite and motivate us”.

There is also power in a cause. People can be motivated if leaders can offer a challenge and a cause. The cause gives meaning, a deeper level of motivation driven by the want to do good in this world.

Remember, that your expectations need to be realistic. It can be demoralizing to reprimand someone for not upholding standards that are unrealistic.


I hope you liked this breakdown of the key highlights from Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People”, chapters 1 – 4. If you would like more tips on how to be a good motivator, look out for my future posts which will cover more of this material. Or better yet, buy his book.

If you enjoyed this read, please subscribe to my blog, give it a like or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks. I found this content interesting. But I am more interested in what your thoughts, opinions or advice on motivation are. If you have any thoughts, ideas, or feedback, please share them in the comments section below. I would love to hear them.

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