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.”

Managing Up When You’re On the Bottom

If you’re looking for tips about “managing up” — that is, on how to manage the person who manages you at work — you’ll quickly find enormous wells of advice. They range in quality from the patently obvious to the uniquely insightful, with the bulk on the former end of the spectrum. But what most of the recommendations have in common, regardless of their quality, is their having been written for upwardly mobile employees, or at least for people who think of work in terms of a career.

For the vast majority of U.S. workers, however, managing up boils down to figuring out how to just make it through the day. It’s about survival under the authority of managers who don’t themselves read the management literature or think much about managing people outside of the moments when they’re actually doing it, often mindlessly. Having grown up in a working class household, I have witnessed that firsthand. But I was reminded of it recently in the classroom, where some of my immigrant students spontaneously shared their stories about what it’s like to be “managed” when you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy.

One of them, whom I’ll call Lydia, cleans the cages of laboratory rodents to earn a living. She shared an anecdote about being accused by her manager of taking a break when she wasn’t supposed to be on one. For Lydia, who is learning English as a second language, a quickly delivered verbal accusation is tantamount to a shot from a stun gun. She is paralyzed by the inability to find the words to defend herself against a charge that she needs an extra moment or two to even understand — and by her own cultural expectation that when your boss yells at you, you simply listen.

In the classroom, a safe place for Lydia, she was able to make clear to me and to her classmates — in English — that she actually had a very sophisticated understanding of the dynamic that led to her being accused, wrongly, of breaking a workplace rule. For example, she knew that her boss was stressed out about inadequate staffing that day, that missing uniforms were contributing to confusion in the lab, and that a new hire had botched protocol with some of the animals that morning. The context didn’t elude her — but communication did.

Given that, Lydia’s fellow students and I helped her decide which key phrases (phrases she already knew) to use the next time she finds herself in a situation like this one: “Please give me a chance to explain”; “May we sit down to discuss this?”; and “I understand why you are angry.” I even took the opportunity to teach the class the meaning of the phrase “managing up,” an expression which the students instantly found amusing, not to mention apt.

The wisdom we were sharing was, of course, nothing new or groundbreaking by any stretch. You can find it, and much more, in classic management articles such as Harvard Business Review’s “Managing Your Boss.” Yet it was clear how none of it had previously touched the lives of my students or, if my assessment of all the stories told that evening is accurate, even the lives of the managers to whom most of the students report at their jobs.

Lydia, fortunately, had finally managed to make clear to the manager that she was not on a break, but was actually hunting down the missing uniforms for herself and the floundering new hire. But the whole episode clearly took much longer — and created far more stress — than was necessary. Time squandered, another gray hair, a dozen more lab mice not fed on schedule.

On my way home that night, I wondered to myself about the vast segments of the workforce, even in the United States, who have been completely left out of the discourse on management thinking, or who get such diluted versions of it that none of it makes a real difference day-to-day. Why are the career-minded and the upwardly mobile pretty much the only people who find themselves with de facto access to the Management Laboratory? Surely language isn’t the only barrier.