How do you motivate others? Should you even try? We’ve all had leaders who have decided that their employees need to be motivated, so they step in with emotional speeches, cute plaques, or possibly stringent reminders that our jobs are at risk—and all we can think is, “Hey, I’m motivated; just leave me alone so I can do my job.” Or consider your typical employee-of-the-month program that’s supposed to motivate people to excellence. Maybe somebody’s version of structured praise works, but a lot of people find monthly celebrations corny or even become upset when they think it’s their turn to be honored and they’re not.
So now that you’re actually a leader, when you think about motivation, you’re sensitive to the fact that not every motivational technique bosses employ actually works—or worse still—is even necessary. What’s a person to do—drop every technique and err in the direction of doing nothing for fear of constantly doing the wrong thing? Over the years we both have discovered several powerful principles that help inform when and how to motivate.
Never assume that people lack motivation. We often assume that if people aren’t doing what we want them to do they aren’t motivated. The truth is that people are motivated. They’re motivated to do what they’re currently doing more than they’re motivated to do what you want them to do. When it comes to motivation, it’s never a matter of lighting a fire; it’s always a matter of helping people restructure their priorities. People already have the fire; it’s our job to capture and direct it toward corporate objectives. It’s important to understand this view because if you carry around a model that suggests that it’s your job to motivate others, you tend to start giving speeches or making threats or creating plaques when you should be trying to figure out why others don’t share your priorities.
So, how does one tap into existing motives to align behavior with corporate goals?
Understand the dangers of extrinsic motives. Don’t rely exclusively on extrinsic methods to propel individuals to do what should be intrinsically rewarding. For years behavioral scientists have known that if you try to pile praise or extra money onto tasks that are intrinsically satisfying, it can take some of the joy out of the already joyful. For example, if you pay your kids for reading a book, they just might learn to read for the video game they get to buy from their earnings rather than for the enjoyment of reading. In a similar vein, when you pile extra benefits on a person or team that has just created a marvelous product, you can easily take the focus off the act of creation which in many ways is its own reward. At a time like this, words of praise or simply standing back and admiring the creation are likely to mean a lot more than any formal form of recognition.
By Kerry Patterson and Eric Patten