A lot has been said about motivation, yet some persistent myths about the subject keep popping up. Mostly, they arise from an incorrect understanding of the psychological basis of motivation. Research shows that in more than 95% cases low work motivation is the result of bad management. Those mistakes are severe enough to elicit a response completely opposite to the one desired.
- The carrot
It comes in many shapes and sizes – result-driven bonus systems, a company car for the best employees, company retreats and so on. Of course, there is nothing wrong with rewarding the best workers, who should always receive a suitable compensation. The mistake lies in the assumption that rewards might elicit a substantial change in the approach to work or an increase in engagement, productivity or loyalty. Money and other rewards do motivate, but only towards obtaining them. Aware of the material benefits some actions entail, the employee will do everything possible to obtain them. It is not that they will do this in bad faith – they will just play with the hand they are dealt.
This leads to all sorts of aberrations. The effect brought on by a reward does not last very long. Moreover, employees are especially adept at finding the easiest way of obtaining it, even if it is to the detriment of the company. For example, the management of a certain glass factory wanted to lower the production rate of faulty bottles, so they announced some monetary rewards. The objective was simple, they wanted the defects gone. The employees achieved this goal quite quickly, the production rate of faulty bottles dropped substantially and everybody earned a bonus. It later turned out that they achieved this in a simple manner: they just destroyed the warped bottles. Those bottles were then counted as waste and not defects, so the defect rate dropped, but only seemingly. As this example shows, badly drawn goals reinforced by external motivators might lead to a situation that is completely different than the one desired. This happens regularly on a varying scale , even to the best managers and employees, and is just an effect of the lack of knowledge about the psychological basis of motivation.
- The stick
If rewards do not work, maybe punishment will? Actually, this creates a situation similar to the one above. Penalties do “motivate” – to avoid them. No external factor, not penalties, nor rewards, can change the attitude of a worker, his engagement, loyalty or responsibility for his work. This is analogous to the situation of a driver: they slow down when they see a speed camera and then speed up once they get past it. No speed camera nor speeding ticket can force a driver to think about road safety or the purpose of speed limits. If the penalties are high, people are willing to adapt, but only for the period they feel they are being monitored. Employees are much the same – they are willing to do a lot to avoid punishment, but when that does not work, they can be quite calculating, when working out its costs. At the end of the day the punished worker feels victimized and directs their resentment at the person administering the punishment. It is the supervisor – employee relation that takes the most severe hit. Undermined trust, a sense of injustice and stigmatization cause the relationship to irreversibly deteriorate.
So why do punishment and reward systems remain so popular?
Firstly, they are the simplest solutions, requiring no knowledge or skills. This approach is very easy and intuitive, as we have all got accustomed to it during our schooldays. Secondly, it is outwardly effective, even if only for a short while. Indeed, a promise of a bonus for additional actions raises work efficiency, but only until the reward is earned. Subsequently, everything goes back to “normal” and the need for further reinforcements arises, creating a vicious circle. Thirdly, this approach gives the management a pleasing sense of power. Even the smallest dose can be intoxicating and create an illusion of strength and control. It is easy to lose oneself in it and get carried away by emotions. When this happens, the line between company interests and personal needs starts to blur.
A lot of studies point to a simple rule – the higher the reward, the easier it is to encourage a materialistic attitude: “I am doing this only for the money”. Furthermore, rewards lower creativity and interior motivation, the real mainspring of a person’s actions.
It seems that encouraging this interior motivation is the most effective method of management. But what is this interior motivation exactly?
A lot of studies point to a simple rule – the higher the reward, the easier it is to encourage a materialistic attitude: “I am doing this only for the money”. Furthermore, rewards lower creativity and interior motivation, the real mainspring of a person’s actions. It seems that encouraging this interior motivation is the most effective method of management.
Unlike exterior motivation that relies solely on exterior factors, like rewards, punishments, requirements or external personal pressure, interior motivation is based mainly on interior needs: a sense of purpose stemming from work, a sense of control over one’s actions and internal consistency. Fostering an appropriate level of motivation is a process that starts as soon as recruitment. It is then that management should ensure that besides the required abilities, the candidate is also aligned with the core principles and values of the company.
Proper management is a continuation of this process. Motivation does not manifest as euphoria, satisfaction from material gains or fear of consequences. It is not a state that can be easily elicited when work efficiency falls. Motivation is primarily a sense of responsibility for the fruits of one’s labor, a sense of meaning and self-agency. It can only be achieved by creating real relations with your employees – relations based on mutual respect, interests and openness to communication, even on difficult or uncomfortable subjects. Some management experts, like Andrzej Blikle, suggest asking the employees directly about their work-related grievances, so the real cause of the problem can be found. According to him, you need to recognize the worker’s needs, so that they can carry out their duties more efficiently – they will find better solutions themselves. This requires a very conscious approach from the person in charge and a lot of effort, but the reward is the possibility of harnessing the full potential of one’s employees. ■