Motivation: What Is Motivation?

How to motivate people is a problem that is close to the heart of anyone who is responsible for getting results via the effort of other people. Often, when people are promoted into a manager role within an organisation, they are ill-prepared for their new set of responsibilities. Just because they did well in their previous role does not mean to say that they will make a good manager, yet that is often how they win the promotion.

This was a problem that I remember facing in my own first manager position within a leading computer company here in the UK. Quite frankly, I made a complete mess of that role for the reasons already mentioned: I was simply unprepared. It took a number of years, a lot of patience and quite a bit of self-education before I was finally ready to make a decent fist of performing the manager role. I remain grateful for the experience, painful as it was at times, because it enables me to empathise with people who attend my workshops wanting to learn how to motivate their own staff.

For many managers, the basic problem is that they expect their staff to be just as motivated and committed to their jobs as they themselves are. When the newly promoted manager had been a regular worker, they had always given their best for the company; that’s why they attracted the manager’s job. This attitude, as helpful as it was in the previous role, can often represent something of a stumbling block for a new manager.

When we come to discover that other employees are not as motivated as we want them to be, they are not as committed to the company and they are not giving their best, it is often very tempting to resort to some kind of disciplinary action in the hope that they will correct their behaviour. What often happens is that this kind of response often exacerbates the situation. In addition, it alienates the manager. When this happens, we are left wondering what on earth we can do to motivate our staff and usually, people resort to what has sometimes been called The Great Jackass Theory of Motivation.

The Carrot and Stick

Sometimes, I joke that at my old school, they used the carrot and stick method of motivation, but without the carrot – it’s true, by the way. Let’s first define motivation as the desire, willingness or enthusiasm for doing something. The opposite attitude would be the aversion or reluctance to engage in the activity.

If you imagine being tasked with the business of having to get a donkey (not renowned for being the most cooperative of God’s creatures) to move forward, even if you had never heard of the idea before, it would not take you long to come up with the basic idea of the carrot and stick. You don’t need me to explain how this is supposed to work.

But the question is: does this approach work with humans? Many companies actually resort to this method because they are fundamentally unable to address the real underlying issues of why their employees seem to be lacking in motivation. Whilst this article is not about The Great Jackass Theory (carrot and stick), we’ll make a few observations in passing.

1. The effect of the stick wears off over time

2. Carrots often work better than sticks

3. What constitutes a carrot is not the same for everyone

So, if you must use the Great Jackass method, and maybe there are times when you just have to, ensure you use the stick sparingly, for maximum effect, and select your carrots carefully, generally avoiding the use of money as an incentive.

Theory of Motivation

Let’s begin this very interesting subject by looking at some classic theory in the area of motivation starting off by considering the important question: why do people work? The obvious answer is: for money. But, it’s not the whole of the picture. Sure our employees work for money, but they have other reasons too and it’s those reasons that we need to understand and utilise to motivate people.

It is not my intention to write a Wikipedia article here. I would certainly encourage you to look at the sources of this information for yourself, especially McGregor, Herzberg and Maslow. However, an analysis of the received wisdom reveals that, beyond the obvious need for money, the main reasons that people go to work are as follows:

  • Recognition
  • Interest
  • Accomplishment
  • Respect
  • Responsibility

Now, if you can creatively make use of those drivers, you will have an extremely powerful method of motivating people. Let’s just take one of those drivers and examine how it was proposed to be used by Blanchard & Johnson in their book, The One Minute Manager. In essence, this book suggests that you ensure people understand what you want from them and then you engage in coaching them to achieve their goals.

However, I would say that the main focus of the book, as far as getting specific behaviour change is concerned, is around the use of the principle of praise. As they put it in the book, “try to catch people doing something right” and then praise them for it. So you can see that this method is focused around the use of the ‘recognition’ principle from the above list.

Motivation at Work

The ‘recognition’ principle is astonishingly powerful. You can train animals using this method, you can correct the behaviour of problem children and, yes, you can even get your employees to change their behaviour too. To use it effectively, the recognition must be delivered conditionally, related to the specific, desired behaviour(s) you want to encourage. It’s not complicated – if Super Nanny can do it, so can you – but it’s remarkably effective.

The use of the other principles is equally important. You want people to be engaged in work that really matters to both them and the organisation. You need to give them tasks that challenge and stretch them and you should empower them by giving them the responsibility to make their own decisions as far as that is possible. If you do these things, you will definitely see a marked change in attitude, however, a common objection I get at my workshops is that people don’t work in jobs that permit any of this.

Personally, I believe this attitude alone is what sets apart good managers from those people who should simply not be in the role. When you look at your job, whatever it is, as consisting of simply turning up and doing what it says in your contract of employment, then you truly are impotent and powerless to effect positive change within the organisation. What you need to do is be creative and, do you know something? You can be, but first, you have to dump that attitude – if you have it, that is. The alternative is that you resort to the Jackass method of motivation.

Becoming a Good Manager

Actually, I really like The One Minute Manager book that I mentioned. When I bought the audio version, it also came with an interview in which Spencer Johnson outlined how to be a bad manager. It was a lovely bit of fun. Of course, the book is about the reverse and indeed the three principles in the book are the reverse too. Here’s what he said you need to do in order to be a bad manager:

  1. Make sure people don’t know what you want
  2. If they do something wrong, make sure you catch & reprimand them
  3. If they do something right, just ignore it

Most people will chuckle when they see his list because they recognise the management style of people they have worked for in the past. So, don’t be a bad manager, be a good manager. The principles are the reverse:

  1. Make sure people know exactly what you want (goals)
  2. Catch them doing something right and praise them for it
  3. If they do something wrong, just ignore it

Of course, there will be times when you will have to deal with bad behaviour with some kind of disciplinary action, that’s true, but don’t let it become your modus operandi. Remember that people are starved of their esteem needs i.e. the need for respect, responsibility and recognition. If you can position yourself as the supplier of those things, the people who work for you will be prepared to do almost anything for you including getting you promoted.

“The people below you get you promoted. The people above you only deliver the message.” – Spencer Johnson

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