Breaking the Motivational Code

Aug 03 2006 by Jerry Pounds Print This Article

Unlike the DaVinci Code, the Motivational Code has yet to be broken. And as they trade argument and counter-argument about what makes us tick, our best and brightest management theorists seem to be suffering from chronic schizophrenia.

"Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be!" exclaims Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5.

Ophelia may have been experiencing a depressive episode when she made this pronouncement, but she could equally have been expressing her exasperation after reviewing contemporary management thinking.

Most organizational behavior experts, gurus and consultants weave their incantations from the motivational theories of "authorities". If you trace these back to source, you wind up reading B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Carl Rogers.

Alternatively, you can skip the primary theorists and move to their well-known translators - and the darlings of every college management class - Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor.

Their ideas are then interpolated through the cerebral sieves of celebrated management gurus like Tom Peters, Peter Drucker and thousands of others. Further down the food chain come national and regional thought leaders and large consulting houses whose practices and principles besiege the perspectives of business figures around the world.

Apparently, psychology's basic truths are known only by a privileged few – and they're not talking. Unlike the DaVinci Code, the Motivational Code has yet to be broken. Meanwhile, the field of applied psychology remains a battlefield where there are no victors but instead an endless conflict of assertion and rebuttal. No position goes unchallenged, no premise uncriticized, no principle unassailed.

Apparently, psychology's basic truths are known only by a privileged few – and they're not talking
The upshot is that the average business leader, manager or supervisor is often left completely confused, free-floating in a conceptual cosmos without anchorage or orientation and vulnerable to every new program or fad.

Ask any manager in any organization in any country to describe the basic assumptions that inform his or her strategy for managing people. What conceptual framework underpins their management practices?

If you review the history of any large organization you'll find that such a framework conspicuous by its absence. In its place is an eclectic mishmash of performance improvement programs, motivational initiatives and behavior change practices which are usually based upon mutually exclusive theories about human motivation.

Look more closely at the content, methods and objectives of these initiatives and you uncover dramatic inconsistencies that create the impression that the organization is on some random search for the values and practices that hold the key to managing employee performance.

But don't expect the management gurus to clarify the disparities between these theories. After all, their stock and trade is the creation of entertaining perspectives on management and leadership. Uncertainty and ambiguity is the breeding ground for new books and the fads they produce.

Just think about some of these ideas:

T-groups; Managerial Grid; Behavior Modification; One-Minute Management; Total Quality Management; Learning Organizations; Peak Performance; Management by Walking Around; Neurolinguistic programming; Scorecarding; Excellence; Chaos; MBO; Matrix Management; Team-Based Management; Right Sizing; Process

Re-engineering; Knowledge Management; Emotional Intelligence

The absence of a consensus on human motivation has not stopped organizations from moving forward with solutions like these, each reflecting a unique set of assumptions about what motivates employees to improve.

Much may have been learned from these experiences, but management credibility, trust and organizational resources have been sacrificed in the process.

So as the so-called management experts continue to bicker, perhaps we would be better off resorting to practical wisdom based on experience and direct observation.

What, if any, facts can we use as basic assumptions? Let's start with the medieval philosopher William of Ockham, whose method of thinking was distilled into problems solving principle called Occam's Razor.

According to Wickipedia, Occam's Razor "is a principle stating that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory. … Furthermore, when competing theories have equal predictive powers, the principle recommends selecting those that introduce the fewest assumptions and postulate the fewest hypothetical entities."

In everyday language, I think William of Ockham is telling us that the simplest answer should be the first to be examined. Therefore, in our quest to understand how to influence employee performance we should probably begin by asking what circumstances in the workplace influence people to change what they do, how they do it, when they do it, and how much of it they do?

Certain situations lead employees to voluntarily change their work behavior (performance). So what lessons can we draw from these? How can we apply them to our management behavior so that we canl in turn change and influence employee behavior?

A good place to start is examining what type of situations cause employees to change their behavior.

  • Leadership – when there is a change in leadership, most employees attempt to change and align their behavior with the values (priorities, interests, idiosyncracies) of the new regime.
  • Company culture – new employees learn and adapt to their new employer's customs and practices.
  • Supervision – employees bob and weave in synchronization with their manger's moods, eccentricities, priorities and personality.
  • Systems and processes – employees creatively adjust to the barriers and obstacles of dysfunctional systems by creating shortcuts and alternatives.
  • Peers – employees constantly manage their social environment – avoiding coworkers they dislike and accomodating to the behavior of their more tolerable peers.
  • Downsizing, mergers, restructuring – employees anticipate the influence of broad organizational changes and adjust their job performance accordingly.
  • Empowerment – many employees will volunteer their time and energy to solve problems and implement change. They will learn new behavior.
  • Cross-training and continuing education – employees will volunteer to learn how to do a new job or learn more about the job they are doing.

In these instances, employees are managing themselves (their behavior) to steer around organizational obstacles such as the wrath of management, layoffs or excessive workloads.

What's more, when something attracts them, they will position themselves to participate and willingly learn and practice new behaviors.

So what principles we draw from all this? Most fundamentally, these examples tell us that behavior is lawful. Behavior is governed by its consequences.

And once you know what to look for, three simple laws emerge.

  • Any work behavior (verbal or physical) that works (pays off, is successful, gets us what we want) is repeated.
  • Any work behavior that avoids a negative experience (criticism, needless effort, appearing dumb, avoids something we don't want) is repeated.
  • Any work behavior that leads directly to a negative experience (discipline, embarassment, needless effort) is not repeated.

In organizational settings, attempts to change attitudes, beliefs, values and personality traits have cost us billions of dollars with little to show. Yet these three laws of behavior operate consistently regardless of variables like personality, natural endowment, gender, and education.

They are present in every country and culture. Their influence is felt by CEOs, supervisors, technicians and professionals. Everyone adapts their behavior to optimize their best interests and to minimize distress to themselves.

So how do we capitalize on our knowledge of these fundamental principles, this relationship between what we do (our behavior) and what it leads to (its consequences)? How do we use this knowledge to enhance employee performance and engagement?

Part II of this article will explore the answers to these questions in detail.

Part II  |  Part III


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.