What we have here is failure to motivate - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
March 2, 2015

What we have here is failure to motivate

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does
Susan Fowler
Berrett-Koehler, 218 pages, $29.95
Leaders motivate. They nudge and cajole staff into inspired work, wielding monetary incentives when required, at least in the private sector. Without motivation, employees might wither and certainly wouldn’t shine.

That’s a basic premise of leadership and managerial thinking. And it’s dead wrong, according to researcher and consultant Susan Fowler. Motivating people doesn’t work.

“In thousands of experiments worldwide, the results are the same: Even though people will take the money or rewards you offer, the only correlation between those incentives and performance is a negative one. In other words, external rewards produce a disturbing undermining effect in the energy, vitality, and sense of positive well-being people need to achieve goals, attain excellence, and sustain effort,” she writes in Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does.

That doesn’t mean you should give up. But it does mean you need a more variegated understanding of motivation. Our instincts derive from a carrot-and-stick model that doesn’t even work all that well in the jails and prisons where they have been brandished for eons. The research that seemed to solidify that approach was by behaviouralist B.F. Skinner, who could motivate a conditioned pigeon to do a 360-degree turn by rewarding its behaviour with pellets. Look at most workplaces, and you will see motivational pellets drawn from his thinking.

But you aren’t a pecking pigeon. Nor are your team members. “The Pecking Pigeon Paradigm never worked the way we thought it would – no matter the type of job or industry. The simple fact is, people are not pigeons,” she observes.

Applying pressure to achieve results actually undermines the results we are seeking. Having a contest or creating competition among colleagues is not the best way to encourage and sustain performance. The focus on monetary rewards has diverted us from understanding what actually satisfies people in their jobs. “When it comes to motivation, we have underestimated ourselves – and perhaps even cheated ourselves – of something richer and much more meaningful than pellets, carrots, and sticks,” she declares.

We can’t motivate people. They must motivate themselves.

You probably know that intuitively, because you probably are motivated – at least most of the time – and even resent attempts by your bosses to manipulate (whoops, motivate) you. Are your subordinates that different?

But what does motivate you and others?

She boils it down, from the research, to three essential factors:

Autonomy: People need to feel that what they are doing is of their own volition, that they are the source of their actions. You can see that when you try to spoon-feed a baby, who fights to grab control of the spoon for himself. Adults have that same thirst for autonomy, so when you try to motivate them you may well threaten their sense of control with what seems to them like unnecessary spoon-feeding. “Autonomy doesn’t mean that managers are permissive or hands-off but rather that employees feel they have influence in the workplace. Empowerment may often be considered a cliché, but if people don’t have a sense of empowerment, their sense of autonomy suffers and so do their productivity and performance,” she advises.

Relatedness: People need to care about and feel cared by others. This involves feeling connected to others without ulterior motives and the need to believe we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. It embodies the personal, interpersonal, and social dimensions. Given how much time your staff spends at work, as a leader you should help them find purpose, contribute to a social purpose, and experience healthy interpersonal relationships at work.

Competence: People need to feel effective at meeting their everyday challenges and opportunities. They also want to demonstrate their skills, and continue to grow. “Motivating people doesn’t work because you can’t impose growth and learning on a person. But you can promote a learning environment that doesn’t undermine your people’s sense of competence,” she says.

Writer Dan Pink addressed motivation in his best-selling 2014 book Drive and came up with a similar formulation from the research: Autonomy, a feeling of mastery in work, and meaning. Both cases set out the replacements for Skinner’s pellets that are needed for motivation, and how tricky they can be to foster.

It’s also important to see Fowler’s three needs as interrelated. She gives as an example a boss who has control issues, micromanaging people and projects. Your autonomy dissipates and soon you may even start questioning your competence. Your inability to manage your boss’s over-involvement or the organizational politics involved only adds to your waning sense of competence. And it raises questions about your skills at dealing with others – relatedness. Fear starts to intrude in your thoughts. (Bosses can demotivate, of course, as this example shows.)

Beyond the three psychological needs, she also sets out six psychological outlooks that you must be sensitive to, illustrating them in conjunction with a team meeting you have attended. Three are suboptimal:

• Disinterested motivational outlook: You could not find any value in the meeting – it felt like a waste of time.
• External motivational outlook: The meeting provided you with a chance to exert your position or power. Or perhaps it offered an opportunity to take advantage of enhanced status in the eyes of others.
• Imposed motivational outlook: You felt pressured because everyone else was attending so went along or attended out of shame, guilt or the fear of not participating.

Three motivational outlooks are optimal:

• Aligned motivational outlook: You link the meeting to a significant value that you cherish, such as learning. You learn from others or they learn from you.
• Integrated motivational outlook: You link the meeting to a life or work purpose, perhaps because of the issue being discussed.
• Inherent motivational outlook: You enjoy going to meetings and figured this would be fun.

Fowler places these on a spectrum according to whether the psychological needs are low quality or high quality and the self-regulation to attend low or high quality. Essentially, for the first five, there is an improvement on both scores as you edge along the spectrum. So disinterested is the poorest, integrated the strongest. Inherent motivational outlook is an outlier – in terms of psychological needs, it is the highest, but it lags the integrated and aligned outlooks on the quality of the self-regulation.

She compares these six motivational outlooks to food. The first three are junk food – unhealthy and unproductive. The final three are health foods. Obviously you want to feed people healthy food, so keep those three motivational outlooks of your staff in mind – as well as their need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

If you do, you’ll realize that you don’t need to motivate people since they already are motivated. What you may need to do, in conversations, is help them to understand why something you would like fits their motivational outlooks or motivational needs.

But, of course, that’s not what we tend to do. She notes that 70 percent of wellness programs in the United States – a few from governments, of course – use financial incentives to encourage healthy behavioural change. And in the workplace, we threaten autonomy and forget about relatedness and mastery in our quest to be master motivators.

The book is valuable as a warning that we need to rethink motivation. But it does bog down a bit in its examples as it tries to discern the motivational outlooks at play, since they are abstract terms that require back-pedaling to recheck the definitions when encountered. Still, it elbows you away from pecking pigeons and into the real, if complicated, approaches you need to handle motivation in the workplace.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...