Your son’s teacher says: your son John does not hand in the homework on time, quality is poor, we don’t see it improving. And concludes: Your son John has a motivation problem.
The culprit, motivation, the thing that John is lacking, seems to be a mysterious faulty engine that needs to work properly for those outputs to be seen. Nobody has ever seen that precondition. Where is it? What is it? A bunch of neurons firing (or not)? A mental state?
The invocation to the faulty precondition explains your son’s behaviour and exonerates him. John is not guilty, it’s that motivation thing that he does not have.
We say of Peter, an employee: he has done a great work, gone the extra mile and achieved unexpected results. Then we conclude: Peter is very motivated. That mysterious engine seems to work wonders here. Peter is lucky to be equipped with such as vital motor system.
Neither scenario, neither John, your son’s, terrible performance, nor Peter’s overachievements has got a millimeter of ‘why’ explained. Lack of motivation ,or a lot of motivation, say nothing. We have injected a precondition to explain output, and we are very satisfied, but we are not near to know why John’s does not perform and Peter over performs. The only immutable realities are that John does not hand in the homework on time, quality is poor, we don’t see that improving, and Peter has done a great work, gone the extra mile and achieved unexpected results.
It does not get better by describing ‘states’ either. John is lazy, for example, presumes that laziness is a condition that explains behaviour. Yet, we use the term precisely because John does not hand in the homework on time, quality is poor, and we don’t see that improving. We have just described a version of laziness.
Is John possessed by a state called laziness, or lacking an engine call motivation?
The additional trouble is that, by injecting these magic explanations, the attention naturally switches to how to fix them ( and still we don’t know what they are): How to motivate John, how to make John not-lazy. Will we give John some ‘motivational speeches’? Lessons on the disturbing consequences of ‘being’ lazy?
Our language is a beautiful trap. Our ‘performance management’ (or management for that matter) in organizations is full of helpful and handy labels that ‘explain’ without actually saying anything. Even worse, they are like powerful frames that will last.
Some people don’t like this, but we need to avoid ‘labels of preconditions’ like an illness and talk about what people do or don’t and understand the conditions under which they do or don’t.
Medicine is full of this. Doctor, (to a child psychiatrist) my daughter can’t stand still, can’t concentrate, gets very upset, cries for no reason and can’t sleep. And the doctor say: she has Emotional Instability. Of course she has! I have just told you: can’t stand still, can’t concentrate, gets very upset, cries for no reason and can’t sleep.
I am going to leave this here on purpose as a reflection of how we use labels as magic thinking, labels that gives us explanations (comforts) without explaining anything. Can we recognize these situations? And can we do better?