Motivation myths

Posted on August 3, 2015

What makes people behave the way they do? Why do some people seem to be motivated to do well in their work, while others do not? The study of motivation is endlessly fascinating as it concerns the driving force within individuals by which they attempt to satisfy a need or expectation.

Differences in the strength and direction of that driving force are easily seen in the workplace. We don’t need sophisticated diagnostic tools to help us to judge whether someone is motivated, de- motivated or un-motivated – their behaviour says it all.

Motivated staff ask questions for clarification; seek to solve problems; share their knowledge with others; have a ‘can do’ attitude and put in the time to get the job done.

De-motivated staff are likely to complain about difficulties; waste time; over-react when things go wrong; can’t help others and don’t ask for help themselves.

Un-motivated people ignore problems; do the bare minimum; don’t care if things go wrong and are neither positive nor negative because they are disengaged.

Low productivity, high staff turnover, high absenteeism and slipping quality standards are just some of the possible impacts on business of the latter two categories – and the costs can be significant.

The question of how leaders and organisations can motivate their workforces to perform better, faster, or cheaper is a hot topic. Companies exhort their leaders to implement all sorts of strategies – some of which appear to be grounded in motivational myths.

Motivational Myths

Myth 1: people can ‘be motivated’ by external agents such as managers.
In fact, motivation is a personal choice of action and is solely within the control of the individual. The most managers can hope to achieve is to create the right conditions in which individuals choose to respond positively.

Myth 2: money is the primary motivator.
In fact, the best-performing organisations do not necessarily pay the best salaries (many outstanding organisations give no financial rewards) and some of the worst-performing companies pay top salaries (sorry bankers)! With a few exceptions, the correlation between money, motivation and performance is tenuous (at best).

As an example, an eminent US university recently conducted an experiment with students who were offered three levels of incentives for completing sets of physical tasks and for complex thinking tasks. The results were surprising. Larger rewards led to better performance when it came to the physical or mechanical tasks. However, larger rewards led to poorer performance on the cognitive challenges.

So what is it that motivates people to use their full talents and abilities and to direct them to perform well in the right areas?

There are many theories of motivation but the one that has stood the test of time and continues to shape performance management today is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model (1943).

Think of a pyramid with five levels starting from the base and going up to the pinnacle. At the base are the lowest-level physiological needs such as food, water, shelter and sleep. Level two needs are safety, security, stability and protection. The middle level consists of love, affection and belongingness. The fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-esteem, self-respect, prestige and status.

Self-actualisation (which research suggests is reached by two per cent of the population) is at the peak of the motivation pyramid and is about personal growth and fulfilment. It is the development and realisation of one’s full potential.

Maslow’s theory is that when a lower-level need has been satisfied, it no longer acts as a strong motivator. The needs of the next higher level in the hierarchy become the motivating influence. When a person has sufficient food to satisfy their physiological needs, they are not motivated by more food. They are motivated by the need for security (then love, then esteem, and so on).

The reverse also appears to be true. It will be difficult to motivate a salesperson to achieve their sales target (level 4 – esteem) when they are having problems with their marriage (level 3 – love).

Although there are fundamental differences between the various motivation theories, they all seem to agree that despite what people might think and say, for most people money is not a motivator. Money can cause dissatisfaction, but the opposite of ‘dissatisfaction’ is not ‘motivation’.

What motivates the trader on the floor to do more deals when he has already earned more than he can spend? It is a higher-order need such as the status or recognition of being the best. What motivates medical students to work 100+ hours a week when they can earn far more per hour working in McDonalds? Why do people work as volunteers?

This is good news for companies struggling with de-motivated workforces. It means that understanding what makes people behave the way they do, and designing and implementing the right motivation strategies need not increase the wage bill.

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