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The Pitfalls of Motivational Interviews

behavioral science business objectives corporate training motivation Feb 08, 2018

Beginning Warning

What motivates your learner? The answer is more complex and complicated than you may think, certainly more complex and more complicated than popular business books would lead you to believe. 

When it comes to assessing the motivational profile of learners, the first and biggest hurdle is Self-Hugging—yours and theirs. Remember, you assume everyone is like you, and they assume everyone is like them. Therefore, when you interview a learner, you will assume they have similar motivations as you, and you will tend to ask questions from your frame of reference. 

For them, they won’t perceive that their motivations are different from other people. If they are very different from you, they may not hear the question the way you meant it, and they will respond according to what they heard and what they assume about you. 

The cycle will continue because you will hear their response from your frame. You may assume they are saying one thing, when in fact they meant something completely different. 

Example: You are high Power motivated, and therefore assume everyone wants a better position at work. You ask, “Tell me about a time you were promoted.”

They are low Power motivated, and therefore don’t like power-hungry people. For them, a promotion means more opportunity to serve, maybe more responsibility to help other people. Their answer will stress these qualities and they will take pride in how they served. They certainly won’t brag about how it was their ambition that caused them to be a leader. 

Since their answer stresses teamwork and service (things in which you are low motivated), and they were not ambitious, you will believe there is something fishy or wishy-washy about them. It sounds to you like they didn’t value the promotion, and certainly aren’t fit to lead.  

The only way through this problem is first a realization of your blindspots, and perhaps a better understanding of their motivation profile. You can also engage in a process of determining what the term “promotion” means to them, thus unpacking their mental models around the terms you are using. 

But the sneakiest barrier to truly learning what motivates another person is questions themselves. Elsewhere, I have written about the power of the question. In short, the way you ask the question will force a response. More interestingly, their brain will consider their response a reality, even when your question created the reality. 

For instance, the reason law enforcement officers are not allowed to ask questions like, “When did you stop beating your wife,” has nothing to do with the assumption of guilt. Instead, studies found that when people were later asked whether they beat their wife, the polygraph test showed that they did indeed believe they had beaten their wife. In other words, the manner in which the question was asked created a belief in the person. 

The point? Beware the questions you ask, and the conclusions you draw from those questions. 


Interview in Person or Via Electronic Response?

There are pitfalls and advantages to both types of interviews. 

When we interview in person, we are able to observe reactions and better judge the accuracy of the responses. We are also able to clarify a question if we perceive the learner doesn’t understand the question or does not have an easy answer. 

Depending on the situation, we can also make the interview feel less formal in person. For instance, we can sit down with the person in a common area, maybe on a couch or comfortable chair, helping the interviewee feel that this is a conversation and not an interview. 

The downside is our very presence will influence the interviewee. We will be sending signals that reward their brains when they give responses we like, and punish their brains when we don’t respond favorably. In other words, in person, people will tend to give us what we want, not what may be actually true. 

On the other hand, questionnaires and traditional assessments allow participants to respond without observation, freeing them to present themselves in the way they want. If you believe there is an advantage to anonymity, traditional questionnaires are your easiest route. 

There is also the advantage of time and scale. Hundreds of people can take an assessment in the time it would take for a single interview. If you seek a large dataset, questionnaires are your best route. 

The downside of electronic responses is we don’t have a sense of the respondents as people. They are numbers on paper; their individuality is seen as deviations from the norm or from our ideal learner.

At Sententia, we use the Reiss Motivation Profile. Since it was established by a highly respected professor of psychology and has been supported by dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles, we have the confidence that the questions deliver truthful answers and the resulting profiles accurately reflect the respondent.

Once we have a representation of 10% of potential learners, we still prefer to interview “typical” learners in person. The purpose of this interview is to gain insight into thoughts and feelings about the learning experience, company dynamics, and so on. The information we receive in person sets the environment in which the learners live and interact. We also filter responses through the lens of the interviewee’s motivation profile. (A high Social Contact motivated person will lament how there is a lack of camaraderie; a low Social Contact motivated person will complain that so much time is spent in idle conversation.)

Whatever approach you take, or combination of approaches, it is important to find points in common among potential learners, where they differ from you in their prioritization of the 16 Motivators, and also where conflicts may occur. 


The Purpose for the Interview

So why are you interviewing or assessing in the first place? What do you seek to learn, determine, or conclude? Are you, for instance, gathering a sense of potential learners so that you can construct a Learner Persona who will represent them as you create your program? Are you, on the other hand, ready to insert game mechanics and want to determine which will be effective and which will cause people to disengage from your program? 

In the end, your goal is to create a program that appeals to the most people. This is done by using game mechanics that attract the most people in your target group, and avoid mechanics that cause them to disengage either by boring them, frustrating them, or even ticking them off. 

You cannot create a program that appeals to everyone. There will always be that group that will love whatever you do and a group that will hate whatever everyone else loves. A great goal would be to create for the middle 60%. Realize that you will have outliers and rebels. Anticipate them and maybe mitigate their disruption. But don’t focus on them at the detriment of the middle 60%. If you, say, create a program that 80% of your learners enjoy, you will be way ahead of even the most engaging learning programs. 

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