When Motivation Fails

Successful leaders are usually very motivated people. They know what they want. They are committed to their goals and their teams. They work hard. They are motivated to go the extra mile.

And then one day, the leader may wake up and not be so motivated anymore.

And it’s more than just one bad day. It’s starting to become a pattern.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that the leader is you!

You start by giving yourself a talking to. You tap into your famous and usually reliable willpower, and you try to, well, power through.

However, that only lasts so long, and you’re back at the beginning. Going through the motions, doing your job, just not feeling excited about it.

What’s going on? This isn’t like you.

You might be experiencing cognitive dissonance. It means exactly what it sounds like it means: cognitive – your thinking – and dissonance – a disagreement or conflict.

In other words, it’s a conflict between two different parts of your brain or being, and it can be really painful.

Cognitive dissonance can occur in several different ways, and I want to look at two of them today.

  1. Your subconscious and your conscious mind believe two different things – or, more likely, your conscious mind is trying to convince your unconscious mind of something that it’s not buying.
  2. Your actions and your beliefs are in conflict.

Cognitive dissonance is often at the heart of our stress and lack of motivation.

I started experiencing cognitive dissonance towards the end of my corporate career. My rational mind told me that I was doing well, that I ought to be happy. I was successful, making good money, had relative job security, and all the stuff that I was taught to believe I needed and wanted.

My subconscious was having none of it. It had a belief about what my life was supposed to be, a belief formed many years ago, and it was tired of being subjugated by the rational mind. It didn’t give a darn about success and titles and money. It wanted me to become the writer that I had always dreamed of becoming. (Later, that dream expanded into being a coach too, and you can read about that here.)

Of course, my actions were aligned with my rational mind, so I had cognitive dissonance happening on both fronts.

Guess what? My motivation went down. Way down. And for a while, I couldn’t figure out why.

That’s cognitive dissonance. As long as my conscious mind and my subconscious mind were in conflict, I was unhappy and unmotivated.

Did I know that at the time? Not at all.

But as I dug into what I really wanted and needed, my rational mind started getting on board with my subconscious. In this case, my subconscious was “right”, but often it’s not.

The key to resolving cognitive dissonance is to figure out what each part of your brain wants or believes and then bring them into alignment. Frequently, that means uncovering our unconscious beliefs and reframing or changing them, but every once in a while, it means bringing the rational mind in line with what the subconscious knows best.

Until the different parts of your brain are aligned, you’re likely to be unmotivated and uncomfortable, if not downright unhappy.

So, here are some questions to ask yourself when you are feeling unmotivated.

  1. Are you tired, sick, or physically challenged in some way? In other words, is your physical body telling your brain that you shouldn’t be pushing yourself right now? In this case, take care of your body and the dissonance should go away. If it doesn’t…
  2. Is what you’re doing in conflict with your deeply held values or belief system? Are you doing something that you intrinsically believe is wrong?
  3. What subconscious beliefs do you have about the situation? How are they out of alignment with what your conscious mind is telling you to do?
  4. Does your life reflect your self-image?

The last question is particularly important. I learned that question in a basic psychology class when I was in college, but it’s always stuck with me.

If your life doesn’t match your self-image, you need to change one or the other, or you will be unhappy.

In my case, my career (being a corporate executive) didn’t match my underlying self-image (being a writer), therefore I became unhappy. (That’s a simple statement, but it wasn’t so easy to get to that understanding. It took time, introspection, and having a good coach to hold up a mirror.)

Diagnosing cognitive dissonance can be tricky, but lack of motivation is a key indicator.

And that’s not only true for you, the leader, it’s also for the people on your teams. How many of them are experiencing cognitive dissonance in some way?

If you are feeling unmotivated, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, or unhappy, check in with yourself. Ask those questions, and see what comes up. You may be suffering from cognitive dissonance, and that’s good news. Now that you know, you can resolve it!


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