This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
So how do we escape from the motivation trap?
I’ve frequently walked into an organization and been told, “The problem is Phil. He’s unmotivated.”
When I chat with Phil, I quickly find out that he’s a marathon runner, or a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, or volunteers in a homeless shelter, or one of dozens of other activities that require a great deal of consistent, focused, effort. In other words, motivation.
Phil isn’t unmotivated. He’s just not motivated to do the thing his manager wants him to do at that moment.
The first step to escaping the motivation trap is simply the realization that people are always motivated to do something. We want to make it easy for them to channel that motivation into their jobs.
When it comes right down to brass tacks, an organization is a community of people with a purpose. It doesn’t matter whether we’re looking at a corporation, a non-profit, a school, a hospital, or a cycling club. Every organization has a purpose, expressed through its culture and conveyed in its vision and organizational narrative.
People who join the organization are going to be at least open to the organization’s vision. At best, they are already excited and eager to be part of it. If either of these points is not true, you have a serious problem in your organizational culture and narrative, the ability of your people to convey the purpose, or your hiring process – we’ll discuss that last point in the next chapter.
The next point is that it is the rare person indeed who comes to work wanting to do a bad job. However, if we just get wrapped up in our use of rewards and punishment, it is possible to turn enthusiastic people into people who no longer care or are happy to do a bad job. Unfortunately, we have some cultural beliefs that tell us that people don’t want to work and are lazy, uninterested, and take no pride in their work. The myth that workers don’t want to be there and have to be forced to work is a cultural value dating back to a time during the industrial revolution when horrible working conditions did, indeed, destroy motivation. As is often the case, cultural values have not yet caught up with reality.
People who are part of a community seek to gain status in the community. Thus, given the opportunity, members of an organization will act in ways which increase their status in the organization, provided they believe their actions matter and can see a path from where they are to a place of higher status. That status will typically translate into greater referent, legitimate, or expert power as well. We can take this a step further and observe that people always choose actions that they believe will increase their status in some way: we need to feel we are making progress in the activities to which we devote our time and energies.
The other side of the equation is that any large project is going to be draining at times. There will be moments of frustration and points where people are so tired, angry, or upset that they feel like just throwing in the towel and storming off. This is not something to just ignore or say that “professionals keep going” and other trite phrases. Professional athletes have people cheering them on and helping them through the long down periods.
Thus, motivation really comes down to unleashing people’s natural desires to do well, increasing their competence and status, and supporting them during difficult periods. It’s about using referent power to build those individual relationships we discussed in the previous chapter, and being there for people.
In this case, a necessary component of referent power boils down to how do you present yourself and what sort of example are you setting?
Are you genuinely interested in your team members as people, or is your interest in them only to further your own career? As Google found out, employees respect and trust managers who have the employee’s interests at heart. Similarly, if you want people to respect and trust you, you have to respect and trust them first. Motivation comes from working with someone who respects you and cares about your career: that is what makes it possible to trust the feedback that you are making progress.
Do you have strongly held beliefs and values? In other words, are you committed to something other than yourself? When someone is only committed to themselves, it’s very hard to trust them; you never know which way they’ll jump. However, people who are committed to a clear set of values can be trusted to hold those values even when it’s inconvenient.
Along the lines of strongly held values, do you demonstrate integrity? Remember that all leadership is at least partially transactional. While transactional leadership is quite limited on its own, it is the basis for anything deeper and more powerful. Without integrity, that transactional foundation will be unstable. Without the transactional foundation, inspiring others becomes impossible, and you’re back to using force: inspiring promises won’t work particularly well if no one believes you. At one company I worked with, a certain manager always found a reason to not follow through on promises he’d made; it wasn’t long before he had a department full of people who spent most of their time sitting around grumbling and doing the minimum amount of work necessary to keep getting a paycheck. The most bizarre part of the experience was that he seemed genuinely bewildered by their reactions, which brings us to the next point.
Can you make an emotional connection to other people on the team and in the organization? Logic is all well and good, but when it comes to deciding whom to trust and whom to listen to, emotion drives the train. If your team can’t make an emotional connection with you, they’ll never really trust you and will abandon you when a better opportunity comes along. Sometimes, they won’t even wait that long. That was, in the end, what happened to the manager I just mentioned. His personal brand became toxic; no one would stay in his department. He went back to being an individual contributor, where he was much happier.
So, with these points in mind, how then do we actually enable motivation?
Before answering that, let’s recognize something very important: there are no magical motivational techniques. Although the techniques we will look at are ones that can be easily done with people rather than to them, it’s still possible to turn each “with” into a “to.” It depends on your presentation.