Everything I Know About Motivation I Learned from Prison



Supervisors are constantly in pursuit of finding the perfect recipe to motivate problem people. Whether it’s a stereotypical millennial or an old-timer who is stuck in their ways, the question is the same: How do I get someone – anyone – to follow and execute my direction? It’s one of the most important and difficult questions for leaders to answer. For me, I found the solution in a very unexpected place: prison.

prison-tree.jpgDuring my career as an instructor, I once had a student – let’s call him Ross – who shared a pivotal story from his former life as a guard at the county prison in Jackson, Michigan. One day, the prison warden tasked Ross with cleaning up the yard. To clarify, for those who have never watched a prison movie, “the yard” is the outdoor communal space where inmates congregate and work off energy. To accomplish this goal of tidying the yard, Ross was going to have to get help from the inmates.

Consider, for a moment, the task he was faced with. He had to motivate those who cannot be motivated. The inmates did not have a concrete reason (like a paycheck) to do what he wanted. So, Ross had to think creatively about how to convince everyone to help him. He weighed a few options for how to approach this: Ask the entire population for help? Ask only the most trusted inmates for help?

What Ross ended up doing was profound. He assembled a group of inmates (around 15% of the total population) based on observing who had the most influence with the other inmates. Essentially, he picked those who could best rally a team to make things happen. Then, with these powerful inmates gathered, he asked them all one simple question: “Do you guys want outside time?”

Now, Ross easily could have taken a different approach here. He could’ve stated, “You guys are going to help me clean my yard.” He could have ordered them, bossed them, intimidated them, threatened them into cleaning up the yard, which most likely would have resulted in a negative response. Instead, Ross appealed to what all the inmates wanted most: a chance to get out of their cells and break free from their daily routines. And, after asking his question, every single inmate in the room volunteered to help.

With his clean-up team assembled and motivated, Ross provided them with the tools they needed, including rakes, brooms and flats of flowers. The result was a rare sight to behold: the most hardened criminals planting flowers, pulling weeds and picking up litter. When everything was complete, the rest of the inmates entered the yard. Now that Ross had given ownership of the yard’s condition to the group, what do you think happened the first time a cigarette butt was thrown into a flowerbed? The inmates took care of not only the cigarette butt, but also the disrespect. The inmates now policed the yard’s condition – not Ross, and not the warden.

Ross’s dilemma was similar to what most leaders and managers deal with on a daily basis, providing a valuable lesson for how to motivate a team to work together to reach a common goal. Whether it’s cleaning up the yard or completing a project, people respond better when you align what you need with what they want. As a leader, if you are able to quickly articulate why it would be in the best interest of workers to follow your orders, you will be more effective at motivating people to follow you not because they have to, but because they want to.


Charlie Westra, Growth Services Program Manager
As the Growth Services Program Manager atThe Center, Charlie’s expertise spans many areas. Charlie is responsible for developing organizational growth strategies, providing management consulting, and building effective teams. Specializing in improving employee engagement with supervisory skills and leadership development, Charlie works collectively and individually with management and sales teams to develop customized workplace tools to fit specific needs and goals. His mission is to assist companies in producing sustainable, positive results.

Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at www.the-center.org.

Categories: Leadership/Culture, Workforce