Three Essential Elements Of Motivation

If you have flown on a commercial airline in the past year, you know how the experience falls somewhere between getting a flu shot and having your teeth cleaned at the dentist. Crowded flights, people bringing absurdly large bags on board, and just the push of loading and unloading the airplane have combined to lessen the enjoyment of traveling by air. The faces of those waiting to board the plane seem to say, "Let's just get this over with."

It's not that airlines aren't trying to find a way to improve the loading experience. They have extended the boarding period to allow people more time to store their luggage, and often offer to check your larger bag FREE to expedite the boarding process (don't get me started on what that teaches travelers). Still, the process seems mired in frustration and disappointment. If only there was a way to motivate everyone involved (flight attendants, gate agents, and travelers) to work together more effectively. It would have to be a complex process involving lots of incentives, signage, and training, right? WRONG! I recently saw a gate agent beautifully demonstrate just how simple motivating others can be with a few well-chosen words.

While preparing to board a packed flight to Atlanta, the gate agent in charge of the flight made the following announcement:

"I have 36 minutes and 22 seconds to board this flight and get this aircraft out of here on time... and I intend to do so."

After her comment, those of us in the gate area applauded. As we boarded there was an air of expediency and enthusiasm frequently absent in air travel today. People moved quicker once they got on the plane, and found their seat. The flight attendants were even more helpful in assisting the passengers. Thirty-three minutes later, we were boarded and ready for takeoff! Why did her simple words make such a profound impact on the process? What was it that she said that motivated everyone involved to change behaviors? I think she demonstrated three timeless principles of motivation:

  • She gave a clear and meaningful picture of the desired outcome. Both the passengers and the flight attendants could immediately connect with what she wanted to accomplish.
  • She gave a measurable deadline. Creating a sense of urgency is critical in motivating others to change behavior. I laughed as I sat on the plane because people were saying things like "We've got 17 minutes and 12 seconds left." We could gauge our own progress because of the clear deadline given, and maintain our own sense of urgency.
  • She reminded us of her role and responsibility as the leader. Her phrases of "I have" and "I intend" were encouraging to us because too often there is a lack of leadership when boarding a plane. We could take comfort knowing that someone had the same goal as us, and was there to make it happen. We weren't on our own trying to figure things out, and had someone working for us.

With the plane boarded, and all of us enjoying a momentary sense of accomplishment, the gate agent demonstrated a fourth principle of successful motivation when she stepped on the plane and spoke these words through the plane's PA system:

"I want to thank all of you for making this happen. We got everyone on board in just over 30 minutes and this flight is ready for takeoff. Enjoy the rest of your day."

WOW! I sure hope that gate agent doesn't retire anytime soon. And if cloning of humans ever becomes possible, I say we move her to the front of the line.

What principle of motivation could you better utilize as a leader?