Talent Development 2 Leaders: Stop Trying to Motivate Your Employees

July 1, 2020

As a training and development professional, how many times a week do you hear leaders say, “We’ve got to motivate our people?” Believe it or not, that phrase often leads to lower rather than higher motivation.

Seeking to motivate people is the most common thought pattern leaders use every day, so what’s wrong with it?

Trying to motivate people shows a lack of understanding about what motivation is and how it is achieved.

Leaders who think this way put the cart before the horse and do not make the necessary mind shift to do the things that actually do improve motivation.

So, what is the cart and what is the horse? The cart is the culture of the organization that either enables or extinguishes motivation. The horse is how satisfied people feel at any particular moment.

. Why do leaders reverse the conventional order; try to motivate people by making them feel good?

1. Poor understanding of motivation

The notion that by adding perks or benefits we somehow make people more motivated is flawed. Over 50 years ago, Frederick Herzberg taught us that increasing the so-called “hygiene factors” is a good way to sweeten things (reduce dissatisfaction), but a poor way to increase motivation.

Why? – because goodies like parties, bonuses, hat days, games, , etc. often help people become happier at work, but they do little to impact the reasons they are motivated to do their best work.

2. Taking the easy way out

Many leaders believe that by heaping nice things on top of people it will feel like a better culture. The only way to improve the culture is to build trust.

By focusing on a better culture, managers enable people to motivate themselves.


3. Using the wrong approach –

It is difficult to motivate another person. You can scare a person into compliance, but that’s not motivation, it is fear.

You can bribe a person into feeling happy, but that’s not motivation it is temporary euphoria that is quickly replaced by a “what have you done for me lately” mentality.

4. Focusing on perks –

Individuals will gladly accept any kind of perk the boss is willing to hand out, but the reason they go the extra mile is a personal choice based on the level of motivational factors, not the size of the reward.

Putting the horse in front of the cart means working on the culture to build trust first.

Improving the motivating factors, such as authority, reinforcement, growth, and responsibility creates the right environment. Motivation within people will happen, and it will endure.

Why do I make this distinction? I believe motivation comes from within each of us. As a manager or leader, I do not believe you or anyone else can motivate other people.

What you can do is create a process or culture whereby employees will decide to become motivated to perform at peak levels. An example is when you set a vision and goals then allow people to use their initiative to get the job done as they see fit.

How can we tell when a leader has the wrong understanding about motivation? A clear signal is when the word “motivate” is used as a verb – for example, “Let’s see if we can motivate the team by having a picnic.”

If leaders seek to change other people’s attitude about work with perks, they are going to be disappointed frequently. To motivate is not something you “do to other people,” rather it is something that is always within people that only they choose to let come out.

Using the word “motivation” as a noun usually shows a better understanding – “Let’s increase the motivation in our workforce by giving the team more autonomy.

An organization where all people are pursuing a common vision in a healthy environment of trust has a sustainable competitive advantage due to high employee motivation. The way to create this is to build a culture of TRUST and affection within the organization.

You accomplish this through consistency and by letting people know it is safe to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal. You work to inspire people with a vision of a better existence for them and by really hearing their input. Doing this helps employees become motivated because:

• They feel a part of a winning team and do not want to let the team down. Being a winner is fun.
• They feel both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards when they are doing their best work, and that is what drives their behaviors.
• They appreciate their co-workers and seek ways to help them physically and emotionally.
• They understand the goals of the organization and are personally committed to help as much as they can in the pursuit of the goals.
• They truly enjoy the social interactions with peers. They feel that going to work is a little like going bowling, except they are distributing computers instead of rolling a ball at wooden pins.
• They deeply respect their leaders and want them to be successful.
• They feel like they are part owners of the company and want it to succeed. By doing so, they bring success to themselves and their friends at work.
• They feel recognized for their many contributions and feel wonderful about that. If there is a picnic or a cash bonus, that is just the icing on the cake: not the full meal.

For an organization, “culture” means how people interact, what they believe, and how they create. If you could peel off the roof of an organization, you would see the manifestations of the culture in the physical world.

The actual culture is more esoteric because it resides in the hearts and minds of the society. It is the impetus for observable behaviors.

Achieving a state where all people are fully engaged is a large undertaking. It requires tremendous focus and leadership to achieve. It cannot be something you do on Tuesday afternoons or when you have special meetings.

Describe it as a new way of life rather than a program. You should see evidence of this in every nook and cranny of the organization.

Do not put the cart in front of the horse by attempting to motivate people with special events or gifts. Instead, increase the motivating factors and build a culture of trust. The end result is that many people will choose to be highly motivated, and the organization will prosper.




Bob Whipple is known internationally as “The Trust Ambassador.”  He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a leadership Development organization.


Perks Help: Culture Helps More

March 21, 2015

Carrot vegetable group on white backgroundAs I interface with MBA students, I am astonished with the number of organizations that use perks, contests, quotas, and other methods in an attempt to improve productivity and raise employee morale.

I believe that all of these things can and do provide some temporary increase in morale and performance, and yet I think their use is often overdone and their effectiveness is way overrated.

Having a constant stream of gimmicks as a means to obtain higher engagement of the employees shows that the leaders do not understand the nature of motivation.

Over 60 years ago, Frederick Herzberg demonstrated that trying to pump up the workforce using what he called “Hygiene Factors” is like trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver. It may be possible to get the nail partly into the wood using the handle of the screwdriver, but the job would go much better if you used a hammer.

Herzberg’s experiments led to his “Two Factor Theory” about the nature of motivation. It states that to eliminate job dissatisfaction workers need a sufficient level of hygiene factors, but that alone will not create motivation. To create an environment where workers really want to engage in the work, you must add adequate motivating factors.

Perks and other mechanical means of focusing on productivity will cause people to pay more attention to the work, so some effect will be noted, but if you want to use the proper tool, try working on the culture instead.

A better culture would include greater autonomy, where people are not micromanaged and are allowed to do things their way. It would include specific feedback, so people have a sense of progress and mastery against the goals that they helped to set.

It would also include the realization that we are citizens in a world that needs our collective help.

Most of all, it would include an environment of trust where there is low fear and people are allowed to voice their ideas or gripes without the threat of dire consequences.

In his book “Drive,” Dan Pink presented the idea that if we treat people like people rather than smaller and better-smelling horses who respond to carrots and sticks, we are going to produce higher engagement. He suggests that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are three prime ways people get really engaged in the work.

Herzberg would agree with Pink and call all three of those conditions “Motivating Factors” rather than Hygiene Factors. After over half a century of knowing that using carrots (perks) or beating on people mentally (sticks) produce only minor and temporary results, along with a lot of cynicism and trying to beat the system, why do leaders fail to heed the advice to work on building a culture of high trust?

I think the reason is that the mechanical approach is far easier to visualize and orchestrate than actually getting down to creating a better culture. It is easier to find a better sales incentive plan than to figure out what behaviors leaders need to change in order to build real and lasting trust.

You can put out a new work quota in 15 minutes without batting an eye, but you are missing the steps required to reach the hearts of the people at work.

So, the games go on, year after year, in numerous organizations, and the results remain tepid at best. Still, leaders are allowed to remain in place to crack the whip or peel the carrots.

What is not known by higher up decision makers is how much amazing potential of the organization keeps falling off the table, year after year. Studies indicate that only about a third of the workforce in an average organization is engaged in the work. The remaining group is either not engaged or actively not engaged, meaning they are consciously working against what needs to be done.

I have written dozens of articles on how leaders can generate more trust in their organizations. It is all about getting leaders to change their behaviors.

One of the most powerful ways leaders build trust is by creating a culture of low fear where people know it is safe to voice their opinions and not have to worry about being punished.

To accomplish that, leaders need to encourage people to voice their concerns and then praise them for doing it. I call that skill “reinforcing candor.”

The productivity improvements in most organizations are available, but only when leaders learn to use the correct tools for the job. Focus on creating a culture of higher trust rather than trying to incent the workers to be more engaged and motivated.