This month on ASQ’s blog A View From The Q Julia McIntosh takes a look at several themes from ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the conference this year but it appears from all the commentary online that is was a huge success. A topic that Julia highlighted that is of particular interest to me was in regards to workplace motivation: “What motivates you at work?”
Motivation is a core factor for a successful business and there have been many studies around it, yet there is no definitive answer or a one size fits all solution to motivation and employee engagement. The several elements of motivation differ from person to person as well as circumstances.
A well known motivational concept is the “Carrot and Stick” approach. This analogy is about using rewards and penalties in order to obtain desired results. It refers to the old story that in order to get a donkey to move forward and pull the cart you would dangle a carrot in front of him or hit him with a stick from behind. The result is the same; the horse moves forward.
So the stick represents fear, which can be a good motivator when used sparingly at the right time. It may produce immediate results that derive from prompt compliance. It is only useful in the short term though, as over time increasing levels of punishment would be necessary to obtain the same results and this can backfire in the form of mutiny and sabotage.
The carrot is then an incentive, which can work very well as long as the individual finds the incentive appealing. In this case, the donkey would have to like carrots, be hungry and/or have a manageable and movable load in order for the carrot to work. This is very important as the incentive must be perceived to be attractive enough.
Reward and punishment are significant motivators only if the reward is large enough or the punishment sufficiently severe. For example, management holds out a carrot, offering a week’s paid vacation to the person who has the highest production numbers. Employees will work hard to reach that target (if the vacation is really what they want), but once the contest is over, they will revert back to their previous level of effort. Or, management wields a stick, threatening some kind of punishment if employees don’t do their jobs. In those cases, people will do just enough to “stay under the radar” and avoid getting into trouble. While some carrots and sticks may work in crisis situations or as a stop-gap remedy, what they mostly do is promote nearsighted thinking, mistrust, cynicism, and a diminished capacity to innovate and create.
Typically, organizations tend to base their motivational schemes on tangible good such as money, in the form of pay and bonuses. The problem with this, like the carrot, is that its attractiveness decreases over time. Sometimes, a simple word of praise from your boss can mean more than a small pay rise. If organizations could find the perfect balance been tangible and intangible rewards, carrots and sticks, this would be the answer to the motivation question. Managers must not overlook these motivators if they want to retain staff and more importantly, have them working to the best of their ability.
If you’re looking for ways to create an environment where people are driven to do their best work, you’ll need to think beyond carrots and sticks. It’s a bit trickier, perhaps a little messier, but if you want to create a thriving organization, you’ll need to consider motivation from the inside out.
Just as you can't motivate a seed to grow (you can only provide an appropriate environment that will allow it to grow), you can't motivate people. They motivate themselves. They have it in their blood, or they don’t. Some people will kick it up a notch to earn a promotion, or a reward, or for recognition. But ultimately, it’s up them.
In my experience there are three things you need to learn about motivation:
- First, you can’t motivate anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. Motivation is an internal thing, not an external thing.
- The second thing is that all people are motivated. The person that stays in bed in the morning rather than getting up and going to work is more motivated to stay in bed than to work. They might be negatively motivated, but they are nonetheless motivated.
- The third thing is that people do things for their reasons and not for yours. The trick is to find out what their reasons are.
External factors can help create an environment where self-motivation can occur, however. The surest way to improve performance is to create a secure, calm environment where your employees know they are important members of your team.
As a business you can help them by creating the best conditions under which people get motivated:
Sense of Purpose: What is it about your job that gets you out of bed in the morning? What contribution to the betterment of anything are you, personally, making every day? Most people want there to be some meaning in the work they do, something more than hours of labor that result in a paycheck.
Leadership: Competent, trustworthy, genuine, conscientious innovators who are glad to be on the job every day! (Well, okay, most days.) Effective leadership is not a result of the command-and-control approach. Instead, it’s more like navigating than commanding – using the ability to “turn confusion into understanding,” and “see a bigger picture.”
Organizational Character: The integrity and consistency of choices and decisions the organization makes. Organizational Character is not only “how we do things around here” (the culture) but also why we do things this way and what people expect when we do things. It’s an organization’s reputation with the people who work there. It’s the tone and the pace of the organization and it’s how people are treated. It’s a major reason people like, or don’t like, where they work and a key contributor to motivation.
Motivation comes from within. Individuals have the capacity to motivate themselves...or demotivate themselves. Leaders can help them see the way by creating and sustaining the kinds of conditions that help them bring their best selves to work every day. Respect, proactive and honest communications, capable and engaged leadership – these are the ingredients that add up to an engaged, energized workplace.