Monday, March 26, 2020

What a difference a word makes!

Why “improving motivation” is rarely, if ever, the answer.

Current ideas about motivation are a prime example of management theory and jargon twisted into the service of Hamburger Management. “Improving motivation” has become a group of impersonal techniques, to be applied to people in the way that you might apply a technique to herding cattle. What if we changed the words? What if we dropped all the talk about motivation used the word “encouragement” instead?
Motivation is all the rage. It’s often seen as a universal requirement for everyone, whether they are expected to motivate themselves (as many self-help gurus proclaim), or to motivate those that they supervise (as legions of consultants and corporate trainers advocate). But what is motivation? Can it live up to the exaggerated claims now being made for its almost panacea effect?

At its simplest, motivation simply means “moving.” From there, it has come to mean moving towards some goal or end point. Self-motivation (as in: “Fred is able, but lacks self-motivation) is moving yourself in some definite direction. Elsewhere, it means little more than displaying energy and enthusiasm: a willingness to take positive action and utilize skills and abilities in the required direction. And in much official and business communication, the complex and abstract phrase “lacks motivation” is preferred—as more politically correct—to the simpler English “lazy” or “indolent.”

Motivation is also used in the sense of “making others motivated.” The verb “to motivate” is a staple in management jargon. Leaders are required to motivate their people—which means to cause them to do what the leader (and their organization) wants. How is this done? Typically, by application of the age-old process of “carrot and stick.” To get the donkey (or employee) to move where you want, you must either dangle a carrot in front of its nose (an incentive, bonus, or reward desirable enough to cause forward movement in that direction); or apply a stick to the other end of the poor beast’s anatomy (disciplinary action, punishment, withdrawal of privileges) to urge it forward in that way.

I am far from the first to wonder whether any leader can actually motivate another person in the way motivation is usually seen. Incentives (actually bribes) work for a time, but are subject to rapid inflation. Today’s incentive is tomorrow’s expectation. Punishments may produce movement, but they are hardly likely to produce enthusiasm. As has been found with the use of torture (or “strong interrogation methods,” if you prefer), people will say or do many things to stop the pain, but rarely mean any of them (or offer the truth, if something else will do just as well).

There is a fundamental problem with all the talk of motivation: it ignores or glosses over a search for the real causes of poor progress. Like so many other “techniques” that have become part of Hamburger Management, it’s a flashy, superficial, supposedly simple answer to an enormous range of largely unknown problems. What if we changed the word? What if leaders were expected not to motivate their people, but to encourage them?

Encouragement is a warm, natural, human activity; motivation is cool, detached, mechanistic.

Encouragement (literally, filling someone with courage) has little to do with either the stick or the carrot (save when it is used as a euphemism). To encourage someone, you must get to know them, find out their strengths, help them overcome their fears and the obstacles that hold them back, praise their achievements and support them through bad times. Encouragement is a warm, natural, human activity; motivation is cool, detached, mechanistic. Self-motivation could be replaced by self-encouragement: the process of helping yourself by building greater self-confidence and recognizing when your fears are the real obstacles to progress.

When someone fails to make progress, or appears indolent and disinterested, there has to be a reason. It could be something in that person’s character. It could be that he or she is in the wrong job, or having personal problems, or feeling unwell, or missing some essential skill or experience, or is fearful of making a mistake, or lacks the confidence even to try. The list could go on and on.

Sadly, the typical Hamburger Manager has neither the patience nor the inclination to discover the truth. So a panacea—a catch-all solution—is quickly applied: motivation. First the carrot, then the stick. Then, if that fails (because willingness to move was never the problem), the person is labeled “unmotivated” and swiftly removed in some convenient way. It’s as if you got into your car, found that it would not go faster than 20 miles per hour, and either filled the tank with the highest octane fuel that you could find or kicked the bodywork hard as a solution to the problem. When both failed, you would next abandon the vehicle on the side of the highway and go buy another.

Wise managers see improving motivation for what it is: a simplistic group of quick-and-easy “answers” to difficult problems. Instead of joining in the frenzy, they step aside and do what great leaders, great teachers, and great mentors have done since humankind began. They take time with each person and encourage them to clarify, then solve, whatever it is that is holding them back from what they can and should become. They don’t do anything to the other person. They don’t apply a technique. They neither run ahead of the other, waving a carrot, nor press on them from behind, wielding a big stick. They walk beside them, seeing what they see and helping them to understand it in ways that shift a negative and frightening prospect into something positive and inviting.

Wise managers see improving motivation for what it is: a simplistic group of quick-and-easy “answers” to difficult problems.

Don’t try to motivate people. Encourage them. Don’t worry whether or not you feel motivated, Recognize what needs to be done and do it, trusting that you will find the stimulus that you need from the courage and confidence that will build within you as a result. Life is always movement. Trust it.

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Maureen Sharib said...

It ain't about the "words".

Job seekers' top reason for turnover: Insufficient compensation.

Hiring managers' and staffing directors' top reason for turnover: External factors (such as moving).

Source: Development Dimensions International and Monster Intelligence 2006 global study of more than 3,700 job seekers, 1,250 hiring managers and 620 staffing directors in five global regions, including USA/Canada, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia/New Zealand. Margin of error is +/-3.0 percentage points for candidates; +/-4.0 percentage points for hiring managers; and +/-5.0 percentage points for staffing directors.

3:56 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I'm not sure that's the point, Maureen.

What I'm talking about isn't turnover; it's what leaders do—or fail to do—to help the people who work for them do better.

Sure, lots of folk leave for better pay, or because of external factors. So what? It doesn't mean that they were happy—or were treated well—while they were with that last organization. And, as many people find, higher pay doesn't necessarily mean a better job.

6:51 AM  
Steve Roesler said...

Meaningful post as always, Adrian.

Consistent with Slow Leadership, encouragement takes more time, energy, self-revelation, and yes, warmth. Exit interviews that I've read more often than not talk about unmet promises, lack of implied promotional or other internal opportunity, and some difficulty with the boss.

But underneath all of that is the image of a dangled carrot whose stick was pulled back once too often.

The notion of encouragement involves genuine relationships. It takes time and energy to establish those. The demands of quarterly Wall Street results as well as other "speed is imperative" imperatives can foil even the most well-intentioned manager.

Finally, the widely-embraced concept of "behavioral management" leads down a transactional vs. relational (encouraging) path. I finally "lost it" in a meeting last week when we were discussing the development of some high-performing people and I was asked to refer to it as part of Human Capital Planning.

So, Adrian, when people become Human Capital, the carrot and stick can't be far behind!

10:58 AM  
Kent Blumberg said...

I don't think it's about pay either, and have seen more than a few studies that would support my view.

I like to think of it in terms of "support." It's probably old hat and cliche, but I think of my organization as an inverted pyramid, with me at the bottom and my team on the layer above me. It's my job to support them in a way that helps them succeed.


3:27 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I couldn't agree with the two of you more, Kent and Steve.

Pay doesn't make a lasting incentive, and not everyone works just for money. In fact, I suspect that even very large amounts of cash don't adequately compensate people for jobs they hate or bosses they despise. And I know many folk who accept quite poor salaries, simply because they believe deeply in the value of what they are doing.

The term "Human Capital" is demeaning to the people it covers, with its overtones of ownership. Were slaves once seen as human capital? Those exact words maybe weren't used, but I'll bet the same idea was going on: I own these people, they have value, so they represent part of my capital.

It's also symptomatic of the way modern management jargon has become denuded of humanity and drowned in abstractions. I blame the bean counters! Financial capital isn't alive. It's inert and (increasingly) abstract. People don't count their gold anymore. The wealth of organizations exists mostly only in cyberspace.

But people—employees—are alive, feeling, living creatures. They aren't capital. No one owns them. The value that they have is theirs alone. Calling them Human Capital is degrading and insulting—as well as indicating clearly that the person doing so is a jerk.

Keep reading, my friends.

9:42 PM  
Paul Williams said...


A very insightful post you have here. I left my last job because the director "motivated" us. In fact, we were so motivated, we had 120% turnover in the year elapsed since she was nominated director, including some of the larger group's most effective individuals.

Evolving Excellence and other blogs had great leadership posts this week too. I've linked to them on my blog recently, along with this post.


You're right that many people say they're motivated by pay. However, there are other survey techniques that are used that indicate the internal motivation factors are much more effective in maintaining high performing teams. You would do well to read about the Porter/Lawler model of Expectancy Theory and Porter's survey techniques, especially if you are in a position of leadership.

~ Paul

7:24 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for the helpful and thoughtful comment, Paul, and the links.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:23 AM  

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