The great motivational myth

Mar 13 2006 by Jerry Pounds Print This Article

U.S. employers spend $100 billion a year on incentives like T-shirts, golf outings and free trips to Florida in the belief that they somehow motivate and inspire their employees. But what they're forgetting is that gimmicks don't buy engagement or motivation. That takes equitable pay, opportunity, and - above all - respect.

The notion that there is a vast pool of unmotivated people out there is a myth perpetuated by management since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: if management can't identify the cause of a problem, they blame it on lazy employees.

Oddly, in this "unmotivated" world, it's difficult to find anyone who really is unmotivated. Whenever I ask someone if they are motivated, they say yes. Yet, everyone believes there are a vast number of unmotivated people out there, even though no one admits to being one of them.

This view is reflected by the fact that when a company is having a bad sales year, the management team instantly starts shopping for motivational programs for their salespeople. If production is down or product quality is poor, the first step on the problem-solving agenda is to blame lackluster performance on unmotivated employees.

Management seems to think that its key productivity problem is related to motivation − a fact that is substantiated by the $100 billion spent last year in the United States on incentives. This is a lot of money to spend on the solution to a problem that (according to employees) does not exist.

So if we all think we're motivated, are we all wrong? Could we be unmotivated and not know it−like having a disease without any symptoms?

Sports coaches are admired because they are good "motivators." Some university coaches can earn $50,000 for giving a lunch speech to businessmen who are keen to hear the coach talk about how they motivate their players. But, if Notre Dame has a poor season, the casual observer immediately thinks that the team needs a new coach−one who can "motivate" the team more effectively.

But have you ever heard an athlete express the need for motivation? "Yeah, we lost the game last night because we were unmotivated."

It may sound absurd, but the prices of goods and services are increased considerably by the cost of so-called motivation - financial incentives, awards, cups, mugs, shirts, hats, travel, spot-cash awards - all of these and many more types of incentives increase the cost of everything we buy and sell.

So management spends billions on programs, gimmicks, and goods to motivate their employees who, when asked, deny the need for any of these things. Many more problems are hidden behind the motivational myth camouflage–the easy catch-all that quickly attributes organizational performance failures to employees "not trying hard enough."

If management can't identify the cause of a problem, they blame it on lazy employees
It's a myth perpetuated by management since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: if management can't identify the cause of a problem, they blame it on lazy employees.

As it turns out, improper problem solving is the culprit here. The key to solving any problem is to first precisely identify the causal factors. Even the science of medicine did not make much progress until diagnosis (problem identification) became more accurate.

Around the birth of Christ, for example, most people believed that diseases were sent as punishment from the gods. Treatments were aimed at pleasing the gods so that the disease would be taken away. Hippocrates believed the body had four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. If a person was ill, it meant that an imbalance existed in their humors and so they would take a treatment−such as having their blood sucked by leaches−to return the balance to normal.

The modern organization hasn't been around that long, of course, but Since its inception, management has made a similar mistake by identifying performance problems as the result of "poor motivation."

As mythical solutions go, this is a good one. You cannot see motivation, or count it, or take a picture of it. Hence, it's an easy way to take the focus off of management performance and place the blame on the employees.

Some people will argue that they can see motivation, when they really mean that you can look at performance data and if it is not to your liking, you can say that poor motivation led to low performance. So really, motivation is a mythical "something" that we pull out of the hat to explain why performance is poor.

In other words, in an attempt to sidestep the blame for a plethora of performance problems, management came up with a perfect foil–the unmotivated employee.

The "motivation" problem has consumed more time and money than any problem in the history of capitalism. The incentive industry employs tens of thousands of people and generates billions of dollars in annual sales, so we know the root of their motivations.

However, assigning performance problems to poor employee motivation has misdirected organizational problem solvers and delayed the identification of the real causal factors that seriously inhibit employee performance.

Systems deficiencies, process malfunctions, job design problems, and nonparticipative management styles have been overlooked until recently because America's management was too busy ferreting out the intricacies of the great motivational crisis.

Contrary to popular belief, when employee performance improves in the presence of small incentives, it is a good sign that the organizational system within which the employees are working is dysfunctional. The incentives are only temporarily causing the employees to circumvent and overcome the restraints that typically limit their performance.

In dysfunctional organizational settings, incentive efforts can have a significant immediate effect because the discrepancy between employee performance and their potential to perform is so desperately broad. The gap between actual employee performance and performance potential is the widest when organizational systems and process problems have not been addressed.

But the problems that incentive systems, motivational programs, and manipulative reward strategies create can, in the long term, be crippling to an organization's competitive functioning.

So what are the negative effects of overusing incentives? Read on ...


About The Author

Jerry Pounds
Jerry Pounds

Jerry Pounds is a management consultant with over 30 years of experience in applying positive reinforcement, reward, and recognition strategies to business and industry. He has written and spoken on the application and problematic nature of corporate motivational and rewards programs and trained thousands of executives, managers, and supervisors in the use of praise and rewards.