Why You’re Struggling to Motivate People. And How to Improve.

You’re Likely Focusing on the Wrong Things.

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Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

“Motivation,” Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.” And while there are tons, literally tons, of information and advice on how to do this, the unfortunate truth is that most people are still not motivated in their jobs.

Companies have improved their perks, increased salaries, cut out inefficiencies, helped people see the bigger picture, and offered free coffee, lunches, and snacks over the past two decades. Yet in this timeframe, workplace engagement has barely increased, going from 26% in 2000 to 33% in Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace report.

We’ve spent a lot of time and energy addressing everything that demotivates people. And have yet to see a return on that investment.

Which is the exact problem. We’ve focused on the wrong things.

Our energy goes toward correcting problems — addressing those areas that demotivate people. But the opposite of demotivation isn’t motivation, it’s just a lack of demotivation.

Consider the things that annoy you at work. Few things demotivate people like an overly bureaucratic process. But once we streamline the process, people aren’t motivated. Few employees, much to the quality department’s disappointment, get a lot of joy from process efficiencies. They’re simply no longer demotivated by them.

Earlier I mentioned the Gallup study on workplace engagement. Its often cited to show that over 2/3 of employees are disengaged. Except this isn’t true. Yes, the results show that only 33% of employees are engaged. But the largest component (51%) is the segment that’s neither engaged or disengaged — more than half of employees are hanging out in this motivational purgatory.

And all of our efforts to fix demotivation isn’t helping this group. Yes, they’re no longer angry and disgruntled. But they still don’t love their job. As the great Clayton Christensen once put it,

“Many of the factors that we think will cause motivation, such as fair pay and a good manager, won’t make you love your job. Even if you eliminate what makes you dissatisfied, that doesn’t make you motivated. It doesn’t make your work rewarding. You just are less bothered by things.”

The key is figuring out what actions motivate people — and which ones just bring entitlement.

A few years ago, my daughter reached that age where she could start doing chores around the house and earning an allowance. Nothing crazy — making her bed, setting the table, cleaning up each night, that kind of stuff. But it gave us a source of cheap labor and she got some experience with earning and saving money.

We even put a chore chart on the wall to track everything. Ten chores per day. A dime earned for each chore. Add it all up and she was making $1 a day, $7 per week.

Which may not translate into minimum wage, but seemed just fine for a six-year-old who has all of her other expenses covered.

The first week, each day she did all ten chores, checked them off the chart, and earned $7 for her piggy bank. Second week, seventy total checks again. Another $7.

But the chores for week 3 only totaled to $4.80. Not a problem, maybe just an off week.

Week 4 — down to $4.00. What’s going on here? When I asked her why she wasn’t doing everything on her chart, she said, “Well, some of those chores aren’t worth doing for only ten cents.”

At which point I learned a valuable lesson — incentives may result in movement, but they don’t bring motivation.

If an employee isn’t doing his job, and I give them a metaphorical kick in the ass to get them moving, have I motivated them?

They’ve started moving. They started performing. But what happens when I need them to perform next time? Do I need to kick them again? And if so, did I ever really motivate them?

Kicking someone to get them moving may work — it will usually result in movement. But it’s a short-term solution. There’s no long-term benefit. If we have to kick someone every time we want them to do something, we haven’t motivated them. And we certainly haven’t created a sustainable solution.

Incentives operate in the same way — they just trade a push for a pull. If you need to give someone an incentive every time you want them to do their job, you’ve just created a transactional relationship. Which may be fine. But they’re not motivated to go above and beyond. They’re not motivated to do great work.

Incentives and punishments don’t instill motivation. They’re a tool to help you fill your team with the right people. Lou Holtz said, “Motivation is simple. You eliminate those are not motivated.” Incentives, punishments, and metaphorical kicks in the ass are ways to find and keep the right people, while getting rid of the wrong ones. And this is critical. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great,

“Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”

Some people are lazy. Incentives and punishments won’t turn a lazy worker into a hard worker. But you can use them to create an environment where hard workers will thrive and lazy workers will leave.

Getting the incentives and punishments right is important. You need to show people that you reward the positive behaviors while punishing negative ones. But we shouldn’t confuse these with motivation. When companies do, incentives become entitlements. Benefits become rights. And the nonexistent improvement in workplace engagement continues to be the result.

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state,” wrote Viktor Frankl in The Will to Meaning, “but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” Frankl, upon surviving the horrors of a concentration camp, recognized that we create our own motivation. It’s an intrinsic property, not something that someone else can provide for us. Each of us gets to decide our own purpose in life and then motivate ourselves in pursuit of it.

Self-Determination Theory supports this picture. It says that motivation, whether its at work or anywhere else, depends on three basic needs:

  • Competence: the feeling that you’re good at what you do.
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to others.
  • Autonomy: the feeling that you can control your own decisions.

We all want to feel competent, to belong, and to have a choice in what we do. I’ll add that it’s also important to believe we’re doing something that actually matters. The great thing about these traits is that they’re both intrinsic and generic — they can fit nearly any type of work. It’s that simple.

Contrast these with common demotivating factors — bad bosses, poor work conditions, bureaucratic processes, and insufficient salary. Which areas does your company focus on when you’re trying to improve motivation?

We’ve made substantial progress in improving management, processes, and work environments. Most companies go to great lengths to make sure their salaries are competitive, even if most employees don’t feel the same way. And these are all good things. We need to attack the areas that demotivate people. But fixing these alone won’t result in motivation.

To do that, we need to focus on increasing peoples’ competence, relatedness, and autonomy. This doesn’t mean give people stretch goals or more meaningless metrics. Instead, it focuses on giving people more freedom to make their own decisions. It involves letting people own their development with the opportunity to take on more challenging projects. It includes removing the administrative parts or someone’s job so they can focus on the work that they find more intellectually interesting. And it means promoting opportunities for people to work within teams and solve problems among their peers.

Give people the opportunity to improve and the vision to notice it. There’s no better motivation than seeing yourself improve at something that’s important to you.

Help people feel as though they’re a critical part of the team. Everyone is more motivated to bring their best when they believe their team is relying on them to do so.

Give people the freedom to make their own decisions. Let them sign their own recommendations and pitch their own ideas. Accountability breeds motivation.

Encourage people to break away from the standard procedures and bring their own creativity to work. The opportunity to make a unique difference is highly engaging to most people.

Establish subject matter experts and encourage people to develop critical knowledge in these areas to fill consulting roles. Or publish the list of critical skills to the company and encourage people to develop in these areas and fill future succession needs. People will be much more motivated to develop in an area if they find it engaging and recognize that the company will appreciate their efforts.

Reduce the amount of management oversight, reinforcing the level of trust and accountability in each employee.

And help people see the importance of the work that they do. Make sure that when they go home each night, they can be proud of the contribution they put into this world. If they can’t do that, there’s really no reason to be motivated in the first place.

That’s it. That’s motivation. Get started.

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

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