Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a very good friend discussing the long-standing issue of how to encourage people to give their best. Another way of saying the same thing is, “How do you prevent someone who has tremendous potential from coasting?”

At some point, most of us have encountered someone who can achieve more, but they simply don’t live up to their potential. Few things are as frustrating as knowing someone has more to give in their job, to their family, or to society, but he or she routinely withholds their best efforts.

How do you contend with this condition? We first have to understand the dynamics involved.

The situation may be the result of conflicting interests or priorities. Our society is on an ever-increasing treadmill of activity that is dramatically speeding up. Many different activities are competing for our time, attention, energy, and resources.

If it is an issue of competing priorities, you may have to make a strong business case for your request. The key is to clearly define the “WIIFM” or “What’s In It For Me?” People always seem to make time for the things they want to do.

Often the problem is one of short-term focus. This can be an easy-to-recognize situation where the individual is focusing on things that provide immediate results. While this may seem appropriate and logical, focusing exclusively on the immediate at the expense of the long-term is incredibly shortsighted.

 It’s amazing how many people fail to fully grasp that their focus on short-term behavior can have a negative effect on the long-term benefits. The best opportunity to help these individuals is to get them to see the long-term advantages. The focus is to help people develop the discipline required to sacrifice benefits today for much greater rewards tomorrow. Much easier said than done!

For this effort to be worth your time and theirs, they must want to change. Individuals truly can’t be externally motivated, in the long-term, to do something they don’t really want to do. If unfamiliar with Dr. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I encourage a little research.

Sometimes their lack of effort is a failure of commitment or confidence. Sometimes people do not believe they can do the things we know they can achieve. Such a lack of faith in themselves can be simple to recognize but hard to overcome.

For this situation, as a former (retired) senior manager who has mentored many individuals over my career, I have found that what I believe people capable of doing is almost irrelevant. Until they begin to believe they can accomplish something, they will fail to achieve success. But, if they believe in themselves, most anything becomes possible.

In many mentoring sessions, I’ve often reminded mentees of one of Henry Ford’s quotes, “Whether you think you can or can’t—you’re right.” Our ability to get the full measure out of an individual is directly related to our ability to inspire them and to convince them that someone believes in them.

Early in my career, a senior manager who was a trusted mentor took me aside and chewed me out for not giving it my all. I thought I’d been working hard to address the situation, but he saw that I seemed to be holding back my best effort. He told me he would not be satisfied until I had shown him far more than I had to that point.

Although no one else was aware of what was happening, I was embarrassed by what seemed to be an unwarranted “rear-end” chewing (done in private). With my bruised ego, I pondered this experience for a couple days.

My mentor’s words kept haunting me… Was he just trying a motivational strategy, or had he really noticed I wasn’t giving my best and could do more! I came to believe the latter because he was someone I trusted.

I re-attacked the situation with his belief in me pushing me partway, and my determination not to disappoint him driving me the rest of the way. Several days later, I sat in his office reviewing the outstanding results, which was one of the proudest and most inspirational happenings of my career.

This was such a learning experience; it followed me through a long career and something I’ve related to many mentees along the way as a teaching aid. I would have never achieved those positive results without someone taking an interest in pushing me harder than I wanted to do something I didn’t think I could do to the level that needed to be done.

Never underestimate the power of someone who believes in you to help break through the barriers and roadblocks in our journey through life.

In the next column, we’ll continue the discussion of how to help people deliver their best.