Your Work Performance Doesn’t Suck Because of Low Motivation (It Sucks Because You’re Avoiding Inner Conflict)

The root of your productivity issues isn’t your lack of quick tips and strategies, it’s something you don’t want to address.

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Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

First, the topic turns to motivation.

The person conveys that they try really hard, they put effort into their tasks, but they just aren’t motivated. Somewhere along their professional journey, they’ve lost the motivation they once had.

Then, comes discipline and willpower.

The listener shares incredible insight: sometimes you must do things that you don’t want to do. You need to push yourself to do things that benefit you long-term even when it sacrifices short-term pleasure. There are abundant best-selling books on the topic.

And then the conversation ends.

That’s the extent of this brilliant dialogue. It leads to no real conclusion, other than “Try harder next time.”

If the listener has emotional intelligence, there might be a discussion about self-care and work-life balance. But these dialogues rarely transverse the territory of meaning and the purpose of existence.

The one thing that’s never addressed is inner conflict.

Often, what holds people back isn’t a lack of willpower or discipline, though those may be present. It’s usually not the lack of motivation either.

All of those are symptoms of a larger problem that most people don’t know how to identify, address, or talk about: inner conflict.

In this hypothetical conversation, I’m interested in exploring what parts of the person don’t want to work, don’t like work, may be afraid of failure or success, and the infinite other factors that may contribute to a holding pattern at work.

That state of tension — of stagnation between two opposite goals — is what needs to be unearthed and put into words.

Let me tell you a story.

I once worked with a client that I’ll call Emily, who was brilliant. And I mean it — she graduated from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the US and was immediately identified as a rising star in her company.

Emily had initiative. She had drive, determination, and all of the skills required to succeed. But she also had one pesky thing that wouldn’t go away: anxiety.

Despite the optimism she inspired in her supervisors, Emily self-identified as a pessimist. She had an overactive mind that just wouldn’t shut off — one that kept her up at night thinking about all of the small details that no one else even noticed. She would often stay up late with an upset stomach working long hours into the night.

And while this was her gift — finding and solving problems that others couldn’t yet perceive — it was also her curse.

This pesky anxiety occasionally culminated in panic attacks and self-sabotage due to her self-doubt and unrelenting expectations for exceptional performance. While she had all of the tools and natural ability — achieving much more than her friends and family could have expected — she was falling short of her potential and she knew it.

In our first session, she told me that I would fail too.

That no matter what I did, it probably wouldn’t work. Because she expected to be either 100% improved with no symptoms or stuck, alone, to suffer from inner torment. There was no middle ground. And it was more likely that she would not be cured from our work.

She was right.

For the first two months of our work together it felt like I was failing. I was incredibly frustrated. I felt like no matter what I did, it was never good enough.

No matter what insight I’d share or what meditation or relaxation technique I’d offer, none of them were good enough for her to even acknowledge, let alone find useful.

Her rejection and lack of acknowledgement made me feel anxious to try anything else. I felt stuck, pessimistic about our work, and had a knot in my stomach each time we met.

But then, something magical happened: we had a major disagreement.

She shared how frustrated she was with me. How much I failed her in certain moments. She cried. And then I described how upset I was that no matter what I did, it never felt like enough. That all I wanted was to help her.

And in that space — of honesty, transparency, and mutual vulnerability — we found connection. Authentic, direct, and real.

That was the moment we needed, and from that point forward we started making incredible progress.

Emily not only ended up experiencing less anxiety, but she also developed more realistic expectations for herself and our work together.

She accepted that if she was only 50% better by the time our work ended, that would result in significantly more happiness and productivity. That even 50% gained would be better than no improvement whatsoever.

She started speaking up and taking more initiative at work.

She set better boundaries and stopped taking on too many projects simultaneously. She showed up as the best version of herself at work and maintained a healthy sense of self outside of it too.

We ended our successful and rewarding work together after eight months.

What I learned in this process changed me forever.

Because our work together showed me that everything is connected —her personal and professional life, her feelings and my feelings — all of it was linked.

Early in our work, I felt the way Emily did on a daily basis.

While she walked around at her job feeling inadequate, anxious, and frustrated that she wasn’t performing at her best, I felt that way during our sessions. In that way, her internal conflict became our interpersonal conflict.

Instead of feeling inadequate, anxious, and frustrated with herself, she began to make me feel that way. She transformed into someone who was powerful and effective while I became the incompetent one.

Over time, as I held those feelings and then shared them back with her in a genuine manner, she began to develop the ability to hold both feelings inside of herself: of feeling effective and ineffective, of being critical and caring. And this integration resulted in authentic self-growth.

As a result of this growth, Emily’s life didn’t just change in my office, it also improved at her work.

Her personal growth had a major impact on her professional performance. She started accepting high-pressure projects and led teams that had decades more experience than she did. In that way, addressing her internal conflict led to better workplace performance.

So next time you start discussing your frustration or disappointment with your work performance, don’t talk about motivation.

Skip the part about how you need more discipline.

And get straight to the point.

Address your internal conflict.

Doing so will not only raise your floor, but also expand your ceiling. And in that process of self-development you will move beyond your limitations to discover something inspiring: your true potential.

(A previous version of this article first appeared in Inc Magazine)

Depth-Oriented Cofounder Psychologist | https://cofounderclarity.com/ | https://drmatthewjones.com/ | NEW BOOK! Slow Down, Wake Up: https://rb.gy/gqupa6

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