“It is the ultimate management conceit that we can motivate people.“ — Peter Scholtes, team effectiveness consultant and author
After six years at Universal Pictures, Harry Cohn formed Columbia Pictures in 1924. During the following decades he ran the company with an iron fist. His image as a tyrant was reinforced by the riding whip he kept near his desk to crack for emphasis. Cohn’s form of “motivation” led to the greatest creative turnover of any major studio. At his funeral in 1958, one observer suggested that the 1,300 attendees “had not come to bid farewell, but to make sure he was actually dead.”
Some parents want their kids to be independent as long as they do everything they’re told to. Some team leaders want their teams to be empowered as long as they follow directions. What some “leaders,” call “motivation” is getting others to carry out their orders. Some seem to live by the philosophy that if I want any of your bright ideas I’ll give them to you. Just do what you’re told…and look like you’re enjoying it. These forms of “motivation” are based on fear and force. If the punishment is strong enough and the policing rigid enough, they will lead to compliance. People will follow the rules and marching orders. But that’s all. Energy, creativity, and extra effort will be minimal. So will ownership and commitment. The only passion tyrants and autocrats create are fear, loathing, and the desire for revenge.
The key problems of the Motivation Myth is clearly illustrated by a Farcus cartoon; a team leader is at the head of a conference table addressing her team with these words, “We need to improve morale, any of you boneheads have a good idea?” The main cause of the problem seems pretty obvious. She just needs to look in the mirror. But obviously the obvious isn’t always so obvious. Root causes and symptoms are continuously confused.
The Farcus team leader is treating low morale as a problem to be solved rather than an indicator of much deeper issues. Clearly a key source of a deeper problem is her contempt for her team and her forcefulness. Her approach is like an auto mechanic reporting, “I couldn’t repair your brakes, so I made your horn louder.”
Many of the symptoms and root causes of motivation and morale can be clarified by understanding the doing versus being aspects of mobilizing and energizing. We need to get beyond “do to” programs and techniques. The big sticks of fear, punishments, and discipline or the carrots of incentives and rewards may work in the short term. But to keep them working, we need to continually increase the beatings or sweeten and vary the incentives. Eventually the beatings will burn people out and they will quit. Some will leave and find other jobs. Many will silently resign and continue to report for work everyday.
People should be fairly rewarded for their contributions. The absence of money can be demotivating, but its presence doesn’t provide healthy, long-term motivation. Using money or types of incentives to get increased performance turns people into selfish, self-centered mercenaries who are increasingly tuned into WIFM (what’s-in-it-for-me). Pride, teamwork, concern for customers, shared values, growing and developing, passion, meaningful work, and the like fade. These become hollow words that raise “the snicker factor” whenever they are heard.
Effective mobilizing and energizing goes well beyond “doing” programs to the “being” or culture of a team, organization, or any group including a family. That culture is a set of shared attitudes and accumulated habits around “the way we do things here.” The culture provides the context or backdrop that either energizes or exhausts people.