{guest blogger} 5 tips on motivating unpaid interns

Today, we are featuring guest blogger Chris Atkinson, of UK-based Elysian Training. Chris is a renowned business speaker who combines his commercial and training focus with a wealth of psychological knowledge in order to inspire and motivate individuals and business internationally. Today, he’s sharing with us his secrets on how to motivate unpaid interns…

When it comes to motivation, most managers are quite lazy!

If a manager wants someone to do something, their thoughts quickly turn to one of two motivational tactics – threat or reward. Of course, very few managers actually think that this is what they are doing, in fact, if you used this type of language to describe their actions you would probably cause offense. However, when you investigate the behaviours of managers closely, you will see that behind the façade of incentivisation is really just straightforward manipulation. Again, this is a word that most managers would deny or not associate with, so let me clarify with an analogy.

Imagine you have a child and you’re at the dinner table and you want them to eat their vegetables. So you think, what deal do I strike with the child in order for them to eat their vegetables? It doesn’t take long for parents to work it out. We either offer some sort of sweet or we say, “you can’t leave the table until the vegetables are eaten.”  These options are straightforward reward – “if you do” options or punish – “if you don’t” options and for most parents they are effective at getting our children to eat vegetables. The question is: “Is this motivating the child or manipulating them?” Of course, it’s entirely manipulative, in both scenarios the child doesn’t want to eat vegetables they actually want the reward or they want to avoid the punishment.

Bottomline: don’t treat your interns like children.

The same principle applies in organisations, when we want someone to do something we are used to thinking “what can I offer them” or “what are the consequences if they don’t do it”. As a result, the primary organisational systems for getting performance from employees are bonuses and appraisals. Promotion and advancement become tools to manipulate people, rather than a commitment to the employee for their personal growth and organisational success.

This is where life gets interesting for organisations using unpaid interns.

The typical techniques of management cannot be so easily applied. Because money is taken away from the situation, we lose a critical point of leverage over that person. Moreover, they aren’t exactly an employee, so we don’t have clear ‘authority’ over them to demand that they do certain things. As a result, the poorest managers of unpaid interns will fall back on their only point of power:

  • The reference, testimonial, positive referral
  • The prospect of future employment at the organisation

Actually therefore in many ways, managers with less authority have a slight advantage in terms of motivating others because they can’t easily resort to the fear or reward systems. In fact, they have to think motivationally to have influence with that person. The best in class at managing interns will have learnt this because motivation is different.

Motivation is when a person wants to do the thing and it is not conditional on reward or threat.

So, here are my top 5 tips for motivating unpaid interns

1. Know their vision

This person is giving you their value, their time and their efforts for a reason. Being an unpaid intern isn’t the end point! They have a destination or dream in mind. Unless you know what that dream is, you will stand little or no chance of motivating that person. So spend significant time listening to their vision for their future, ask for details, encourage them to describe what they hope for in the future. This is not a 5 minute conversation, this is a deep, personal and powerful conversation that will build trust.

2. Be a vehicle for them

Most likely, their aspirations extend beyond their current role or even your organisation. If you don’t allow this possibility and conversation to happen, they may hide important information from you. Once you’ve found out their vision, make sure the work they are doing is a vehicle to take them towards their ambition. The closer the link between their role with you and their future, the stronger their motivation will be!

3. Play to their strengths

Here is a simple observation: people enjoy spending time doing things they are good at. In organisations, we see people volunteering for tasks or roles that give no additional financial reward, why? Because it’s fun, they enjoy it and that’s satisfying for people. If an intern isn’t naturally picking up a particular skill, stop giving them that task and find alternatives for them until you see them flourish.

4. Give personal recognition

In this context, the word ‘personal’ doesn’t just mean giving it personally (i.e. face to face), it also means giving recognition about the person as an individual. You need to understand that saying ‘thank you’ isn’t giving recognition, it’s just common courtesy. The power of recognition is telling someone that you recognise a personal quality or talent that they have, something that is uniquely them which you value.

5. Explain the purpose, then give them freedom

Maybe this is two points, but no one enjoys working through a list of tasks. With interns, the danger is we treat them as if their job is to run errands and make our lives easier. As a result, we often don’t feel a need to explain to them the importance of the role they are performing and we just micro-manage their behaviour. Help them see the part they are playing and WHY it matters.

Basically, you will notice that all of these tips point to one thing: Committing time.
If you want the quick easy solution, use manipulation tactics, but they will only work in the short term and you risk resentment.

To truly motivate people, YOU have invest time in the relationship, get to know them and value the person as an individual. It does take time, but the long term rewards are far greater and much more satisfying for all parties.

Let’s finish with another analogy:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

About Chris: Chris is an international business speaker and author who combines a strong commercial focus with a deep psychological knowledge to inspire individuals and businesses. He travels extensively worldwide as a speaker specialising in engagement, organisational culture and inspiring leadership. Over the last fourteen years, Chris has worked in more than twenty countries with forty-three different nationalities. He’s an excellent keynote speaker and motivator of teams.  Find out more about Chris at www.chris-atkinson.co.uk

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