By Dr. Woody Sears
How do you motivate employees? That old question again! It sends consultants to their shelves of snake oil and foo-foo dust, or maybe the latest book by a learned professor who has conjured a nifty mix of magic tricks. Of course
, that too will be found empty of meaning and results.
Here’s the answer you never get: You don’t have to motivate people who want to do what you want them to do! Do you have to motivate a friend to share a cold beer on a hot afternoon? Do you have to bribe a kid to eat an ice cream cone? Don’t you remember what Douglas McGregor wrote, that work is as natural as rest or play? (Remember? McGregor, the Theory Y guy?)
Alas, Douglas McGregor left the scene long ago, another dead white man, but one whose work merits being remembered and saluted―but not here. Let’s cut to the chase and consider some ideas about getting people to perform, and in a way that is better, faster and cheaper. So, some propositions:
Proposition #1: Motivation is always about coercion, manipulation, power and probably some kind of dishonesty.
As it is used in most instances, motivation is about getting people to do more or less of something, but in every instance, somehow differently from what they presently do. Clever people put their heads together to outsmart “them”―those resistant and unappreciative folks who are holding up productivity and profit. Maybe they will respond to a contest to win a trip, a new set of golf clubs, a weekend at a resort or a bonus on commissions?
Of course, in this economy, maybe they would respond to a rumor about staff cutbacks or maybe a new program to weed out the bottom quartile of performers. Or maybe a steely eyed pep talk from someone in the executive suite would do the trick.
As a last resort, perhaps someone could suggest something honest, like leveling with people about what’s needed and why, and asking for their help and cooperation. Didn’t that work famously well for Jack Stack at Springfield Remanufacturing?
Proposition # 2: Motivation is probably unethical, regardless of your intentions.
The question is, do you ever try to motivate a peer, an equal―someone who’s on the same intellectual or ability level? That would be condescending and not the sort of thing you would do to a friend or colleague. Actually, they’re too smart to fall for something like that, and they’d laugh at you.
But in this new universe of knowledge workers, in which everyone handles complex electronic gear with ease, and even green kids know how to hack into your computer, who’s not a peer? In his long-ago books, longshoreman/philosopher, Eric Hoffer, argued for workplace parity; and another relic of another age, Studs Turkel, campaigned for the integrity of the working man.
Maybe working people at all levels today are too savvy to buy into the emotional blackmail that so much of the so-called motivation involves. Maybe they’re all laughing instead of taking the bait!
In truth, all behavior is motivated. That is, there’s a reason for everything we do. You scratch because you itch. Anyone who watches you will see the pattern of your itching and scratching, and the pattern provides cues and clues for predicting your behavior. Negotiators and used-car salesmen know this, and so do wives and other women.
Nothing builds performance like people working together, succeeding together and being rewarded for succeeding. But rewards must be timely and equitable, and that means someone has to be paying attention and appreciating the results that others are creating. (In my experience, the toughest thing to teach managers is to say “please” and “thank you!”)
Is it true, as was mentioned recently on BBC Radio, that half the working people inAmericawould like to change jobs? If that’s true, many people must be living with soul-killing jobs and in distressing workplaces. It’s going to be really tough to motivate them.
Proposition #4: People with high self-esteem need less KITA than those without.
Another departed guru, Frederic Herzberg, talked about KITA back in the days before it was acceptable to say “kick in the ass.” That was a reference to the lowest common denominator of motivational theories. But in opposition to that, he offered one of the best deals an entire generation of managers ever got. Unfortunately, most couldn’t take advantage of it.
He said―and I was there and heard it because I was a speaker on the same program―“If you don’t piss people off, they will give you another 10 or 15 percent of productivity for nothing.” He understood that KITA was a misuse of power; an abuse of people who were not volunteers, who had to be somewhere, trading time and talent for dollars, and who were not free to fight back. And every time they got a dose of KITA, their self-esteem dropped a bit more―along with their productivity.
Conversely, people with relatively high levels of self-esteem find it easy to join up, to support programs and colleagues and employers. Therefore, the smart money says performance improvement is rooted in building self-esteem throughout your workforce.
Proposition #5: If you are not contributing to the success of those around you, you’re wasting your life!
Those words have appeared in these pages before, quoting one of my most important mentors, an Episcopal priest. He was honored with the Croix de Guerre, presented by General Charles de Gaulle in 1945 to the only priest in the European Theatre with his own Thompson sub-machine gun―a true warrior priest. After 24 years in the army, Col. Ken Sowers earned a Ph.D. and was my boss in a consulting firm from 1967 to 1970. He worked part time as a parish priest, helping a group of true believers get their Church of the Apostles off the ground and into a building of their own. And four or five nights a week, he was meeting in his office with our firm’s clients, pro bono, helping them solve personal or professional problems and contributing to their success.
So finally, how DO you motivate people?
There are six steps, again not original with me. They came from another priest, a former Jesuit who was a business partner years later (and years ago).
Simply stated, it goes this way:
- Ask for help.
- Tell your people what must be done differently.
- Tell them why.
- Ask for their input.
- Determine a course of action and do the deed.
- Celebrate the success that came from their participation.
Celebrate? That’s saying “thank you,” backed up by some communal sharing of food and drink (even if it’s just coffee and a cake from the supermarket). That’s how you get people motivated and get them do what you want them to do. And, along the way, turn them into a really effective work group. (That’s a team without all of the power and authority issues that contaminate most so-called teams!)