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3 Motivation Lessons from a Cat


It might not be obvious, but there are intriguing parallels between motivating people and motivating cats. Both cats and people can be remarkably stubborn, creative and uncommunicative. Let’s explore how motivating cats can teach us three pivotal lessons on how to motivate patients and dental employees.  

Motivation Lesson 1: Find the laser light

If you have a pet, you may relate to this experience. When I call Rex to come in from the backyard, he trots over– looks at me- and then dives underneath the lawn furniture. Why? Because he sees no benefit to coming inside. Could I call him again in an angry tone? Sure. Could I plead with that I want to go to sleep? Yup. But this won’t change his behavior because cats are amazingly unsympathetic.  Given that he’s entirely ruled by his instincts and emotions- little Rex needs a reason to come in that makes sense for him.

With cats, food is generally a good motivator.  So, I shake the Meow Mix bag. Nothing. I tap the canned food. Nothing.  That’s because when Rex is outside, he wants to play, not eat.  So, I literally cut to the chase.  I get a laser light and wave it around.  He perks up and chases the light into the house.  Ah-ha! I can use his pursuing instinct to change his behavior.

Let’s take a moment to review what Rex teaches us about motivation.

  1. You can plead, threaten or bribe employees and patients but this is not going to generate increased motivation.  You might get grudging compliance, but you won’t get commitment. Sadly, meeting your needs is simply not that compelling to others. People, like cats, can be unsympathetic.
  2. The things you think will be motivational – what in fact might motivate you – may not be the lever that inspires others.  We’re motivated for different things and at different times. You need to observe what’s really important to the other person.
  3. If you want someone to change their behavior, they need an incentive or reason that makes sense to them. You have to explicitly connect what you want to what they want.

Motivation Lesson 2:  Use the laser light to inspire behavior change

Let’s say you’re frustrated by patients and employees who chronically arrive late for their hygiene appointments and morning huddle. What’s the verbal equivalent of their laser light? How could you get them to change their behavior?

The Tardy Patient’s Laser Light

You could tell your patient that his late arrivals create a domino effect in your schedule. You could ask him politely to “try” to arrive on time next time. Maybe this patient will feel guilty, but will he care enough to change his behavior, especially if it’s inconvenient for him? Possibly not. You need to find his laser. If time management is his engine, then that’s what you use.

“Hey patient, I know how busy you are. I’m betting that leaving work and battling the commute is pretty frustrating and that you certainly don’t want to have to come here twice. The thing is, if you continue to get here past your reserved time, even by 5 minutes, we’ll have to break your treatment up into two appointments. I’m sure that would be annoying for you and for us.  So- which should we plan for? One hygiene appointment or two?”

The Tardy Employee’s Laser Light

How can you change the behavior of an employee who, week after week, rushes in during huddle, disrupting the team?  What could be her laser pointer? Well, most employees care about their relationships with their colleagues. Others also care about having a solid reputation. And for the most part, employees don’t want to be the one everyone else gossips about or resents.

“Hey employee, you’re one of the most approachable and friendly people I know.  I’m sure you want to remain friendly with the team and be well respected. So, have you thought about how your teammates feel about you when you arrive late and they have to catch you up?  I’m sensing that they’re growing resentful. And I know this is also damaging your relationship and reputation with me.  So-you tell me, how important is it to you to be seen as a respected and liked team member? Is being late worth the risk for you?”

Motivation Lesson #3: Motivation is Internal

The verbiage I shared focuses the person’s attention to the consequences of their current behavior. But these consequences aren’t “punishments” from you.  Punishment and rewards generally don’t lead to a commitment to change; they only lead to a commitment to avoid the punishment or get the reward. Ultimately, you want patients and employees to be internally motivated to change because it’s important to them.

This is the essential difference between working with cats and people. Rex needs me to urge him inside because he doesn’t have the capacity to think ahead. However, employees and patients can imagine both the consequences and benefits of their actions.   Your role is to identify their laser-light so that they choose to follow it.

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“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

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