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The Elephant and The Rider: Techniques to Motivate Your Team

Knowing how to engage both the logical and emotional side of the brain will inspire the most impactful, purpose-led employees.

By Alexandria Hewko  •   June 8, 2022  •   7 min read

We’ve all procrastinated on a project, knowing that we didn’t really care about whether it was a flop or not. 

We’ve all also been way too passionate about a project, not caring about who or what is affected as long as you could benefit from being involved with it. 

In either situation, the logical and the emotional sides of the brain are unaligned. This unalignment leads to less successful projects, missed deadlines, and uninspired employees who could care less about how unique, important, or interesting the project is to anyone else. Through goal setting and redirecting energy in conflict, for example, we can learn how to manage and align both sides of the brain to create more fulfilling and purposeful work.

The story of the elephant and the rider

The elephant and the rider is a metaphorical tale that helps us understand how behaviour change works. In the story, there is a rider (a person) who sits on top of the elephant and is intended to guide the elephant down a path. The rider symobolizes the logical part of our brain which makes rational decisions about where to go and how to get there in the most effective manner. The elephant symbolizes the emotional part of our brain where we feel motivation, power, and inspiration (or the complete lack of these things). There is also a path, which represents the external environment and the obstacles that we may face along that path. 

Since the elephant is so much heavier than the rider, it is nearly impossible for the rider to push the elephant forward if the elephant is unmotivated to move. In other words, if there is little to no motivation to complete a task, even logical reasoning won’t be enough to create motivation. 

In the workplace, the rider side is present when we make decisions like cancelling an exciting project due to budget restraints or proof that it won’t generate sufficient return on investment (ROI). In the same example, the elephant here is that we’d feel compelled to work on the exciting project because it is stimulating and fun. As such, the stubborn elephant (emotional side of our brain) may convince us to find alternative reasons to continue on with the project even though it doesn’t make sense for the business. 

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How to use the elephant and the rider to motivate your team

1Help them grow through goal setting 

Setting goals at small progress marks along the way enables the elephant to feel a sense of accomplishment and maintain motivation levels. To set goals successfully, it is important that the rider knows what accomplishments would feel meaningful to the elephant. 

For example, does the elephant feel successful if they reach a certain revenue target, or would they feel more successful if they connected with a certain number of new sales partners? Knowing how employees track their own success is important to provide realistic goals that feel achievable and that the elephant part of their brain actually wants to attain. 

2Appeal with compensation 

Having a target at the end of the path shows the reward that will be achieved if the task is completed. Compensation can be an additional bonus to inspire motivation towards a goal, particularly if the goal is beneficial for the business but not desirable to the employee itself. 

For example, a customer success manager has a rational side (the rider) which knows that they should try to upsell other products to their accounts. However, the emotional side (the elephant) is uneasy about how to approach the conversation with customers and chooses not to upsell unless required. So, the rider then decides to provide an additional incentive in the form of compensation so the elephant knows it is worthwhile to grow through the discomfort of upselling for the first few times. 

3Give direction to the destination

To generate some interest in completing a task, the emotional side of our brain needs to see a direction or final destination. Creating smaller goals breaks a large, daunting task up into smaller, more deliberate and manageable tasks. The rider, as the more logical side, can see how the full project will break down into these smaller parts. Then the rider can create goals that the elephant feels are meaningful accomplishments. 

Making an action plan and establishing clear expectations for the team enables team members to mentally prepare for the upcoming activities. Having regular one-on-one meetings between employees and managers is a great way to ensure that team members are well informed and know what will be expected of them.

4Appeal to emotion

Intrinsic motivation is when you are internally inspired to complete a task out of your own sheer will or interest. Building intrinsic motivation in a team is incredibly difficult, but is the most generous source of positive results when achieved. Fostering a great team culture is one of the most effective ways of building intrinsic motivation for a team. Establishing a healthy, supportive culture of growth and community will tap into the emotions of employees to achieve a ‘buy-in’ across the team for future projects. 

5Create a path for progress 

Having metrics that guide success along the way is important for employees to measure their starting point against their end goal. For the rational side of the brain, it’s important that these metrics are quantitative so there is a basis for decision making and measuring performance. For the emotional side of the brain, it’s very important to have these metrics be “guides” rather than “grades” so the employee doesn’t feel disappointed in themselves for making less progress than expected. 

For example, measuring the number of leads closed per quarter is a guide, as it measures whether performance during each quarter improved or didn’t based on the previous quarter. Labelling performance as A, B, or C-level quality in the workplace based on the number of leads generated is likely to demotivate an employee if they score lower than desired. 

6Refocus the energy during conflict 

When conflict or challenges occur in the workplace, it’s possible that the elephant will feel out of control. It may become especially stubborn or adopt tunnel vision. Focusing on big goals and the final destination won’t be possible in this state, as the elephant will have adopted a smaller field of thinking. In this case, it’s helpful for the rider to intervene and establish small goals that ease the way out of conflict. 

7Give them autonomy 

Another large part of inspiring intrinsic motivation is allowing the employee to feel purpose in their work. Feeling useful and knowledgeable appeals to the elephant and drives the employee’s feeling of belonging in the team. Micromanaging from the rider or manager will therefore completely detract from this feeling. Avoid micromanaging to allow employees to use the most of their creativity and keep the elephant feeling purposeful and happy. 

In Episode 88 of the Supermanagers podcast, Scott Williamson (CPO at GitLab) shared, “You need to give people the maximum amount of autonomy that they can handle where they can run and you trust them to do what they need to do without asking them to do too much.”

8Protect the team from distractions

Humans developed from a long evolutionary line where it was important to rely on the sights and sounds nearby to alert of any approaching danger. Today, this tendency more often takes the form of distractions taking our attention away for short periods of time because giving in to the distraction creates a short-term emotional high (whether negative or positive). 

To help limit distractions, managers can appeal to the emotional side of the team by providing stimulating, engaging work that the elephant enjoys. The rational brain can also introduce timed breaks. This provides an opportunity for the elephant to meet its own needs, whether these needs include participating in a distraction (which is actually no longer a distraction as it’s done purposefully) or resting completely. 

9Help the team understand their purpose

Having a sense of direction, an end goal, and autonomy to complete the task are three ideal ways to satisfy the elephant and help it move forward along the path. Together, these three things create purpose. The direction, end goal, and assignments all define what you’re doing, which is what appeals to the rider. However, the elephant needs to know why they are being asked to do a given task. Otherwise, why do it? 

Parting advice

When the two sides of our brain are misaligned, we either lack reason or lack motivation. Neither of which is the key to a successful project or a healthy, growth-oriented mindset. Learning how to adapt the work environment and the way in which we approach our work tasks will help teams to better align their motivations to the goals at hand. Creating this alignment is also a great way to motivate teams, build a supportive company culture, and create a togetherness in growth (for both revenue and personal development!).

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