Book Review: Motivating the Middle

Recently, T.J Sullivan was the featured keynote speaker for The Leadership Event. Kaitlyn Schmitt from Student Leadership Development, offers her perspective on T.J’s book, Motivating the Middle: Fighting Apathy in College Student Organizations.

If I had a nickel for every time a student leader suggested motivating others by making something mandatory, I could buy a cup of coffee at The Grind. (But if you think about it, that’s a lot of nickels.)

Student organizations often struggle with apathy. Groups are constantly looking to increase attendance, get members to take on additional responsibility, and just generally motivate their members. Many student leaders suggest mandating attendance and threatening removal of group membership, but rarely do they actually make good on those threats. It’s hard to kick someone out of a volunteer group. But if requiring participation doesn’t work, what does?

T.J. Sullivan, a fraternity/sorority-advisor-turned-educational-speaker, had an interesting idea: stop trying to motivate everyone. Focus on the members who need a small nudge rather than a big push. These are the members in a group he dubs the “middle third.”

Like design and visual arts, student organizations have a Rule of Thirds. Every member of every student organization can be classified as a top-third, middle-third, or bottom-third member. These thirds may not be exactly 1/3 of your membership, but roughly speaking, you can divide your membership into thirds based on level of involvement in the organization.

Somewhere between the most involved (top-third) and the least involved (bottom-third) groups are the middle-third members. These members care about the success of the organization but are not so wholly committed that it’s their top priority. They show up because they like being a part of the group and believe in its mission. They enjoy some aspects of the organization but not others. They’re willing to help out, but only if they understand the commitment, are confident they can meet expectations, and feel needed. And most importantly, they are juggling their participation in the organization with all their other commitments. Unlike the top-third members, this organization isn’t necessarily a ball that doesn’t get dropped.

Motivating the Middle

Most students focus on the bottom-third members and trying to improve or remove those members. But they would likely have more success if they worked with the middle-third members. Since the students in the middle third care and want the organization to succeed, they are already motivated to help out, to complete tasks, to attend activities, and to be held accountable. They just need some barriers removed for them. They need to know that their contributions are valued but not expected to be above and beyond. They need to be able to participate at a level that makes them comfortable and happy, without the expectation of being or becoming a top-third member.

The best strategies for motivating members focus on the middle third. What can be done to give them more responsibility while respecting their middle-third membership? How can the organization remove barriers to their participation? What do they want to get out of the organization, and how are these expectations not being met? Talk to your middle-third members, answer those questions, and you will likely see a marked increase in your need to motivate your members!

Ideas for Motivating the Middle Third:

  • Start by asking them for their opinion, nothing more.
  • Learn what they like and don’t like about the organization’s operations/activities and why. Problem-solve ways to make the aspects they don’t like more similar to the aspects they do enjoy.
  • Find out why they joined the organization and try to help them achieve their own goals in the group.
  • Let them work on projects or tasks that interest them.
  • Ask them to complete tasks that have defined start and end times.  They may be more willing to take on a leadership role if they know it won’t last the whole semester!
  • Thank them for their participation. They are often overshadowed by top-third members, yet the organization couldn’t function properly without them.

Questions for reflection:

  • In which organizations am I a top-third member? Middle-third? Bottom-third?
  • Who are the middle-third members in my organizations? What are their ideas for making changes?
  • How can I help my organization’s members each get what they want out of the experience of being a member of this group?

If you’d like to learn more, read Motivating the Middle: Fighting Apathy in College Student Organizations by T.J. Sullivan. It’s an easy and quick read, taking only an hour or two. You can also visit TJ’s blog at