As I See It: Motivate This
September 9, 2013 Victor Rozek
I’m about a week away from heading up to Banff and Jasper for a little mountain madness and, as departure time draws near, my motivation to work is draining faster than sinuses under a pollen attack. Like God, motivation is a universal concept, individually applied. With the exception of survival, few, if any, motivators can guarantee to consistently move the productivity needle. And those that do, won’t necessarily do so for long. For people who have already achieved a comfortable baseline and don’t aspire to piggish levels of consumption, motivation is like the tide–it comes and goes.
Mine was waning under images of craggy peaks, mountain lakes, and the delights of the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise–wilderness with a concierge. But deadlines can be powerful incentives, at least for me, and I’d rather sit through the collected speeches of Spiro Agnew than miss one.
So I pushed paradise from my mind and began thinking about motivation and the fact that almost everything I’ve read about the subject was pure bull bunkum. Old Spiro would have probably accused me of being a “nattering nabob of negativism” (Spiro’s speech writers were enamored with alliteration), but if there were a one-size-fits-all motivator (as books on management suggest), we would all be as productive as pornographic video makers.
The power of money to motivate, for example, is not a particularly lasting means of inspiring employees. Not unless they’re as broke as Detroit. The most visible, albeit exaggerated, examples are athletes who produce at stratospheric levels the year before their contract expires in order to secure the next big pay day. But once the $100 million contract is signed, the risk/reward incentive is reversed and production begins to tail off. Since expenses always seem to expand to swallow all available income plus credit, any raise soon becomes the new baseline from which future dissatisfaction flows.
Most of the common motivators extolled in business literature are highly idealized. Finding meaning and creativity in work is both desirable and important, but personal fulfillment is a luxury reserved for those who are wealthy enough to exercise choice. It requires sufficient means to be able to say “No” to paying work. The portion of the workforce too poor, too desperate, too overextended, or too uneducated to find ideal employment become prey to the vicissitudes of the market. The wealthy choose because they can, while the poor accept what is available because they must.
Roughly speaking, motivation can be dissected into four broad categories: Internal, External, Positive, and Negative. Internal motivators are the fruits of self-direction. Ambition, pride, the desire for creative expression, and the drive to overcome challenges and solve problems, are some of the internal forces that will propel career aspirations.
Internal motivation is driven by a combination of values and self-esteem. The clearer the values, the more directional and compelling goals become. The greater the self-esteem, the more likely that the desired outcome will be pursued with commitment and persistence.
External motivators often focus on acquisition–of money, toys, power, or all three. But the motivation isn’t greed, it’s a desire to fill a lack that can never be filled. Knowing poverty and hunger, or being the object of social snobbery can fuel a lifetime acquisition quest. If comparison is the objective, it is a project that goes on without end.
Likewise, satisfying the expectations of others, or listening to a voice that’s not your own, drives the career aspirations (and self-medication practices) of millions. Many doctors report being guided into an unwanted life by the expectations of parents or family and, not surprisingly, they have the highest suicide rate among professionals.
But the opposite is also true. Proving someone wrong is an equally powerful motivator, although for those employing this strategy it often feels as if they’re trying to prove everyone wrong. “Just watch me” is a defiant expression of determination to invalidate the judgment of another.
Negative motivators include what is perhaps the most powerful inducement for getting humanity off its collective butt: fear. Fear of failure, fear of not measuring up, fear of not being accepted, fear of losing everything you have (the insurance industry is built on that fear), fear of being homeless–as long as the fear doesn’t become paralyzing, it is a primal mover.
Duty (not the sort that compels young people to serve their country, but the kind that obliges them to do things they would otherwise not do), guilt, shame, greed, and the dread of punishment are other common negative motivators.
Positive motivators are the noble incentives: loyalty, passion, pride of excellence, ensuring the welfare of the family, the desire to serve and benefit humanity. At this level, ownership drives job performance. Tasks and responsibilities become important by virtue of being yours. However insignificant the undertaking, it receives the same attention and effort as more important and visible tasks.
Providing the opportunity for ownership has proven to be a huge motivator even in the unlikely province of pre-packaged cake mixes. Pillsbury once offered a mix that required nothing more than the addition of water. It failed dismally. Then someone who understood the principle of ownership suggested removing powdered milk and egg, thus allowing the housewife to add her own milk and eggs. The packaged cake mix was advertised as “home made,” and it became a company staple.
Having said all that, motivation is nothing if not elusive. What motivates someone today may not motivate them tomorrow. Few employees will be motivated by one thing, and one thing alone. Their personal evolution and life circumstances will inform what gives their lives meaning and heart; which experiences can be composted into motivational fuel, and where they will fall prey to self-sabotage.
The best an employer can do is offer a variety of motivators (money, advancement, interesting non-repetitive work, flexibility, education, acknowledgement, challenge, etc.) and hope that one or more will be sufficient to keep employees fully engaged, knowing that the most powerful individual motivators will generally remain private and impenetrable.
As for me, I’m always motivated by the opportunity to explore craggy peaks and mountain lakes. But as for the anticipated delights of the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise, that motivation evaporated when I discovered it was going to cost me $500 per night. Call me fickle, but my new motivation is saving at least $300 a day by finding cheaper accommodations. I told my wife that the closest she’ll ever come to staying there is waving at the lodge as we drive by. It’s good to adjust expectations to reality.
But then there’s Moritz Erhardt, a young man who failed to adjust. Actually, it would be more accurate to say, there was Moritz Erhardt. The unfortunate 21-year-old intern was toting barge and lifting bale for Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, when he dropped dead after reportedly working three consecutive all-nighters.
Proof of two things: The strongest motivator isn’t always the wisest; and young Moritz really could have used a vacation.