Strategic Leadership Journal
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  Don't Try to Motivate Your Employees
  Bob Whipple

As a leader, how many times a week do you say, “We’ve got to motivate our people?” When you do, you make a mistake that often leads to lower, rather than higher, motivation. Seeking to motivate employees is the most common thought pattern leaders use every day, so what is wrong with it?

Trying to motivate workers shows a lack of understanding about what motivation is and how it is achieved. Leaders who think this way want to eat the dessert before the entrée.  While the temptation for the tasty stuff may seem irresistible, it is not a wise strategy because after dessert, the main course is less appealing. Leaders do not make the necessary mind shift to do the things that actually improve motivation. So, what is the dessert and what is the entrée?  The entrée is the culture of the organization that either enables or extinguishes motivation. The dessert is how satisfied people feel at any particular moment.

Why do many leaders try to reverse the conventional order; try to motivate people by making them feel good? 

  1. Poor understanding of motivation - The notion that by adding perks to the workplace causes people to become more motivated is flawed. Over 50 years ago, Frederick Herzberg taught us that increasing the so-called “hygiene factors” is a good way to sweeten things (reduce dissatisfaction in the workplace), but a poor way to increase motivation. Why? Because goodies like picnics, pizza parties, hat days, bonuses, new furniture, etc. often help people become happier at work, but they do little to impact the reasons they are motivated to do their best work.
  2. Taking the easy way out - Many leaders believe that by heaping nice things on top of people it will feel like a better culture. The only way to improve the culture is to build trust. By focusing on a better environment, managers enable people to motivate themselves.
  3. Using the wrong approach - It is difficult to motivate another person. You can scare a person into compliance, but that is not motivation, it is fear.  You can bribe a person into feeling happy, but that is not motivation it is temporary euphoria that is quickly replaced by a “what have you done for me lately?” mentality.
  4. Focusing on perks - Individuals will gladly accept any kind of tasty dessert the boss is willing to dish up, but the reason they go the extra mile is a personal choice based on the level of motivational factors, not the size of the cheese cake.

Putting the entrée before the dessert means working on the culture to build trust first. Improving the motivating factors, such as authority, reinforcement, growth, and responsibility, creates the right environment. Motivation within people will happen. Then, when dessert is added, it is much sweeter.

Why do I make this distinction? I believe motivation comes from within each of us. As a manager or leader, I do not believe you or anyone else can motivate other people. What you can do is create a process or culture whereby employees will decide to become motivated to perform at peak levels. An example is when you set a vision and goals, then allow people to use their initiative to get the job done as they see fit.

 

How can we tell when a leader has the wrong understanding about motivation? A clear signal is when the word “motivate” is used as a verb – for example, “Let’s see if we can motivate the team by offering a bonus.” If we seek to change other people’s attitude about work with perks, we are going to be disappointed frequently. Using the word “motivation” as a noun usually shows a better understanding – “Let’s increase the motivation in our workforce by giving the team the ability to choose their own methods to achieve goals.”

An organization where all people are pursuing a common vision in a healthy environment has a sustainable competitive advantage due to high employee motivation. The way to create this is to build a culture of TRUST and affection within the organization. You accomplish this through consistency and by letting people know it is safe to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal. You work to inspire people with a vision of a better existence for them and by really hearing their input. Doing this helps employees become motivated because:

  • They feel a part of a winning team and do not want to let the team down. Being a winner is fun.
  • They feel both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards when they are doing their best work and that is what drives their behaviors.
  • They appreciate their co-workers and seek ways to help them physically and emotionally.
  • They understand the goals of the organization and are personally committed to help as much as they can in the pursuit of the goals.
  • They truly enjoy the social interactions with peers. They feel that going to work is a little like going bowling, except they are distributing computers instead of rolling a ball at wooden pins.
  • They deeply respect their leaders and want them to be successful.
  • They feel like they are part owners of the company and want it to succeed. By doing so, they bring success to themselves and their friends at work.
  • They feel recognized for their many contributions and feel wonderful about that. If there is a picnic or a cash bonus, that is just the icing on the cake, not the full meal.

For an organization, “culture” means how people interact, what they believe, and how they create. If you could peel off the roof of an organization, you would see the manifestations of the culture in the physical world.  The actual culture is more esoteric because it resides in the hearts and minds of the society. It is the impetus for observable behaviors.

 

Achieving a state where all people are fully engaged is a large undertaking.  It requires tremendous focus and leadership to achieve.  It cannot be something you do on Tuesday afternoons or when you have special meetings. Describe it as a new way of life rather than a program. You should see evidence of this in every nook and cranny of the organization.

Do not skip directly to dessert by attempting to motivate people with special events or gifts. Instead, dine with your people on motivating factors and build the meal around a culture of trust. The end result is that many people will choose to be highly motivated, and the organization will prosper. Then, if you give some tangible perks for reinforcements, they will be like a wonderful dessert that is more meaningful and longer lasting.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., an organization dedicated to growing leaders at all levels.  He is the author of two books on leadership:  “The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals,” and “Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online.”  Bob can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763.