Breakdown: How to be a Good Motivator – Highlights from “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) Ch. 5-8

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 chapters 5-8. These chapters capture principles 4-7 to bring the best out of people. If you like it, please check out my previous post capturing chapters 1-4 and look out for future posts where I will share highlights from later chapters.

Chapter 5: Management of Failure

This chapter highlights principle #4, create an environment where failure is not fatal. As motivators, we need to help the people we motivate manage their failures, and as leaders we need to approach failures creatively. Failure is an important learning opportunity and can be used as a tool for innovation.

The main theme of this chapter is to anticipate and expect failure, so you and your organization is prepared for it. It also notes that as motivators, we need to learn from our own mistakes also and be open and honest about them. Let others see your mistakes. Richard J. Needham, late columnist for the Globe and Mail said it succinctly, “Strong people make as many and as ghastly mistakes as weak people. The difference is that strong people admit them, laugh at them, and learn from them. That is how they become strong.”

What I thought was missed in this chapter is the power of recognizing mistakes of others as a learning opportunity for you and the organization. Mistakes may stem from problems within the system. It may be an opportunity to improve processes, procedures, and leadership. By turning a mistake from an individual learning opportunity to a systems learning opportunity, we have more corridors to accommodate it. By not personalizing the mistake, and instead capturing it under a broader umbrella of responsibility, we make it more comfortable for employees to make them. The mistakes are not always solely their own, the team can recognize errors and identify if there are changes that could be made to reduce or learn from them.

The trick here is to be able to address and correct errors without harming the person who made them resulting in a loss of their enthusiasm. Don’t let failures deter staff. Major success often comes after long stings of major failure. Look at Abraham Lincoln’s track record before his presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” For this reason, you should probably reprimand teams who never make mistakes – they are probably playing it way too safe.

Chapter 6: Building an Inner Drive

This chapter highlights principle #5, if they are going anywhere near where you want to go, jump on their bandwagon. The main purpose of this chapter is to drill into your head that the best way to give advice to those you want to motivate is to find out their wants and needs, then give them advice to achieve it. Remember, manipulation is convincing people to do things against their own interests. Manipulation is a red flag for poor leadership. As motivators, we need to understand the interests of others.

McGinnis points out here that a real test on the effectiveness of your efforts, is how much people continue to stay motivated when you are absent. They could behave as if they are motivated when you are there, but as soon as you leave become complacent. To get them to stay motivated when you are gone, help them develop personal goals that are SMART (SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). These goals need to satisfy their interests, dreams, and aspirations. Then the motivator will help them create a plan to reach those goals and help them follow it. Do everything you can do to help them achieve their goals. This is “hopping on their bandwagon.”

What you should not do is plant an idea in their head, then convince them that the idea was theirs in the first place. This is a manipulation tactic that often backfires. So, don’t approach people with a view that you know what that person should be then change them to be that. Clarify what they want by asking how they want to change, what makes them happy and how they wish to modify their behaviour. Then set goals together.

Another sharp point made here is that employees’ goals and values need to align with the organization. For example, I would not recommend that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) hire carnivores who actively protest against plant-based diets. They are probably not a good fit.

As much as you need to establish a fit between employees and the organization, you as a leader needs to have clear goals and objectives too. People want leaders with clear objectives, but you need to be consistent. People who waiver on values and objectives are often seen as weak or unstable. This becomes particularly dangerous when you change your values and objectives in such a way that people can no longer be on your bandwagon. But we know that it is okay to change your beliefs, it is human and shows that you can learn and grow as a person without blindly holding onto beliefs that are irrational. That is the foundation of science, as new information comes in, new understandings emerge that force us to let go of the old ones. So, the author clarifies that we need to build into conversations some room for others to change their minds and to say “no”. To avoid manipulation, don’t lock them into a position that they cannot change from.

Also highlighted in this chapter is to not let people believe that they are failures because they failed. Tomas Edison had the right mindset when he said, ““I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Chapter 7: The Power of the Success Story

Chapter 7 highlights principle #6, employ models that encourage success. The purpose is to get the reader to realize the power of story telling. Success stories are motivating because they touch the hearts and minds of people and as a result can change their attitudes and perspectives.

Here, you should not simply use stories that you find compelling. People are motivated in different ways. You should not use the success story of Donald Trump to motivate a democrat or use stories of war to motivate a pacifist.

Here, it is important that you know those who you want to motivate. Understand their values, goals, and aspirations. Then pick stories that you think will tug at their heart strings.

Chapter 8: The Secret of Parlaying Small Successes into Larger Gains

This Chapter highlights principle # 7, recognize and applaud achievement. Here the author notes the all-too-often complaint from employees: “The boss never gives me feedback, except when something goes wrong”. Remember, as motivators we want to recognize the good side of people and build on that. If we are only recognizing when they make mistakes, we are focussing on their bad sides.

The advice in this chapter is based off BF Skinner’s seminal work in psychology about positive and negative reinforcement.  It is clear that positive reinforcement, or rewarding good behaviour is a much more effective tool for changing behaviours than negative reinforcement or punishing bad behaviour. So, the art of praise is an important skill for any leader.

The art of praise works best if you reinforce specific behaviours. This is not saying “I expect great things from you”. This is saying “Wow, I overheard your call with that client and you demonstrated the kind of customer service excellence we like to show off to the world”.

The author gives a tool here called one-minute praisings, where you take regular breaks to catch employees doing something right or exceptional and give them compliments. Everyone is starving for appreciation. So, when someone comes along to genuinely acknowledge our good side, we will follow them enthusiastically. Employees are more motivated when they know that they are doing things right, so create systems that regularly identify wins, reinforcing that your people are winners and then celebrate those wins.

To master the art of praise, McGinnis provides four suggestions:

  1. Give praise publicly as one-on-ones are less effective. People like it when nice things are said about them to other people. For example, it feels really nice when your partner says something very nice about you to their friends.
  2. Seize the moment to celebrate every success. Successes are an excuse for celebration, and celebration supports morale and a positive atmosphere.
  3. Write your compliment down in a hand-written letter. 
  4. Be very specific about the compliment you give. Identify exactly why you appreciate what they did and how they did it.

Here the author also notes that too much reinforcement with things like pay incentives and gifts can be dangerous. You don’t want those you motivate to become more motivated by material rewards than they are by their values and goals. Don’t lose sight of the importance of your mission and purpose as a tool for motivation. People can turn into “reinforcement junkies” who must have some material reward available to put in hard work. Furthermore, too much praise can become meaningless. Don’t praise for the sake of praise, this is not genuine. People will recognize it and it will become less effective.

As leaders we need to observe improvements in those we motivate. If bad habits have changed into good ones, we need to acknowledge them for that. It is extraordinarily demoralizing to change your behaviours at great effort and/or personal expense, then see it go unnoticed by your leadership.

There is this idea that by celebrating success, you produce overconfident employees who think they are better than others. McGinnis argues that this is not the case. It is a mistake for leadership to think that they need to “peg employees down a notch”. William Somerset Maugham, a famous English playwright and novelist once noted, “The common idea that success spoils people by making them vain, egotistical and self-complacent is erroneous; on the contrary, it makes them for the most part humble, tolerant, and firm. Failure makes people bitter and cruel.”


I hope you liked this breakdown of the key highlights from Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People”, chapters 5 –8. 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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