Did That Employee Motivation Plan Come in a Can?

Everyone wants to feel motivated at work, and managers know that motivated people produce better results. So it’s not surprising that the literature on motivating employees is vast. But it’s hard not to feel depleted when you sense that “motivating the team” is a line item on your manager’s agenda, a means to an end, a notch in your boss’s belt.

Articles and books about motivating employees don’t put it that way, of course. The tone is usually energetic, even inspirational, and certainly practical. Confronted with low morale, managers who read the literature looking for tips and solutions have learned to wheel out the team-building efforts, listen more actively, increase positive feedback, and use an array of other no-brainer tactics to make people feel valued at work. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that. The end goal is a worthwhile one.

But most employees know when they’re being tinkered with, when attempts to motivate them are coming from a calculated place, when there’s simply too much deliberate effort in the endeavor, well-intended as that effort may be. People, especially the talented ones, recognize the prefab packaging of an off-the-shelf purchase. Sometimes you even see it lying around, like when I noticed a dog-eared magazine article about employee motivation on a manager’s desk, only to find myself a participant in the article’s recommended team exercise two weeks later. Sure, the effort was better than apathy and inaction, but I felt pity for that manager, and that’s pretty much a downer.

I have never conducted rigorous research on employee motivation, as many who write about it claim to have done. But one thing I know is that data-hungry managers seeking valid, usable evidence of best practices will eventually see, if they’re honest with themselves, that they’re on a wild goose chase. Even the rare manager with enough research savvy to analyze the data astutely will find that the very act of casting about for solutions and trying to apply them in a troubled situation looks pathetic at best — and cynical at worst — to the people he wants to motivate. That perception is inherently depleting, not motivating.

What to do then if you’re a manager with an unmotivated team? Give up? Well, maybe so, if you find yourself routinely in need of imported tools and prefab crutches as you try to motivate people. But the problem might instead be that you’re looking around for answers instead of looking within. People get most excited when motivation is incidental to the task at hand, not an end in itself. Motivation endures when you learn from someone who is enthusiastic about the intrinsic value of the work, is fascinated by how colleagues and subordinates think, is able to articulate her keen observations, and is just plain good at what she does. I’ve seen that happen time and again in both the workplace and the classroom. Never have I witnessed anyone respond in a genuine way to a canned motivational plan.

Motivation, like laughter, is casually infectious. It blindsides you when you least expect it. Administering it via syringe doesn’t work, precisely because people see the needle coming.

Sure, some managers get deft with needles and seem to obtain results despite their inorganic approach. All sorts of little tricks are out there to help you in that effort. But tool kits and bags of tricks make me feel numb. And you’d be surprised how many people would admit that if you weren’t the one assigning them grades or writing their performance reviews. “Yes, sir, thank you for giving me this motivation. Here it is on my desk. I love it. Very beautiful.”

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

4 Responses to Did That Employee Motivation Plan Come in a Can?

  1. Gary says:

    This is a very incisive reading of a sad situation in many offices. I have been a victim of canned motivation programs, and they make you want to roll over and die. I hope people who design an use these programs get to see your post.

  2. Sara G says:

    I just came through an employee motivation program that felt really packaged. Reading your perspective was a catharsis. I felt so angry as everyone nodded and yessed the facilitator to death. Your post reassures me that most people in the room really did know what’s going on. They’re just too afraid to show it like I was

  3. Rachel says:

    I used to work for a boss who, when I asked him how I could motivate the employees to do a better job, how could I reward them for a job well done” he replied “you can give them their paycheck at the end of the week, thats their reward.

  4. Brilliant post, Steve.

    How these canned approaches have survived so long is beyond me.

    They’re just SOMA for senior management.

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