The Myth Around Motivation

Let’s address an age-old business question: How do you motivate your people? Contrary to public opinion, the reality is simple — you can’t.

First, let’s get the terminology straight so we understand each other. ‘Motivation’ is inherent to everyone. If you are ‘motivated’ to do a particular task, it means you find it enjoyable. The very act of being involved is — in itself — rewarding enough, and makes you happy in some way.

The mistake people have made, or have been taught, is that motivation is analog, like height, weight, or blood pressure. In other words, the assumption is that you can have more or less of it, like liquid in a tank.

So, if that is the understanding, it is only natural to want others to have more of it. You then set about trying to cause people to have more motivation, through incentives (or bribes, depending how you look at it), threats — you name it.

That illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how motivation, and organizational performance, actually works. It turns out that everyone has roughly the same level of motivation in his or her tank; folks are just motivated to do different things.

Even the phrases we use are misleading. For example, an observer may ask one of your employees: What motivated you to become an engineer? There are only two possible answers: One, I find joy in doing it; or, two, I was ‘activated’ by the need for money, because my parents pushed me to, etcetera.

You’ll notice I introduced a new word, activated, into the discussion. Activated is what you are if you are caused to do something, anything, by an external force. You do not choose to do that thing because you enjoy it, but because you will get, or avoid, a reward or consequence in return.

The misinterpretation of these two definitions influences the design of almost all of the human resource approaches in practice today. The damage it causes may not be calculable, but certainly will be paid for at some point!

How can manufacturers right the ship and get the most out of their people? Get to know them. Get to know what truly motivates them — what they enjoy doing — and bring those individuals together. Let them try new things. And if you find members of your staff are, in no way, motivated in any aspect of your business whatsoever, help them pursue their passions outside of your business — knowing full-well that may mean severing the employer-employee relationship.

This one shift to how you view human capital management alone has the power to transform companies.

This article originally appeared in Prairie Manufacturer Magazine.

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