14 August 2005

And While We're Talking About Motivation

In that last post about the Starbucks employees forming a union, there is a repost of an article from 1993 on employee motivation, from a fellow who writes and lectures on education, parenting, and human resources issues. The article identifies the basic Tayloristic instinct in corporate America:
At least three of four American corporations rely on some sort of incentive program. Piecework pay for factory workers, stock options for top executives, banquets and plaques for Employees of the Month, commissions for salespeople -- the variations go on and on. The average company now resembles a television game show: "Tell our employees about the fabulous prizes we have for them if productivity improves!"
It goes on to describe why rewards and punishments are among the most ineffective ways of motivating individuals:
While rewards are effective at producing temporary compliance, they are strikingly ineffective at producing lasting changes in attitudes or behavior. The news gets worse. About two dozen studies from the field of social psychology conclusively show that people who expect to receive a reward do not perform as well as those who expect nothing. This result, which holds for all sorts of rewards, people and tasks, is most dramatic when creativity is involved...

Rewards punish. Even executives who understand that coercion and threats destroy motivation may fail to recognize that the same is true of rewards. Punishments and rewards are not really opposites. They are two sides of the same coin, and the coin does not buy very much. Like punishments, rewards are manipulative. "Do this and you'll get that" is not very different from "Do this or here's what will happen to you." The reward itself - a bonus, say - may be desired, but it is contingent on satisfying terms someone has imposed. Sooner or later, this sense of being controlled feels punitive. Rewarding people is similar to punishment for another reason. When people do not get the rewards they were hoping for, they feel punished. And the more desirable the reward, the more demoralizing it is to miss out.

Rewards rupture relations. Research and experience show that excellence depends on teamwork, both because of the exchange of ideas it fosters and the climate of social support it creates. But the scramble for rewards - particularly when they are made scarce, creating competition - destroys this valuable cooperation.
The article goes on to describe what management can do to foster motivated employees: "Choice means workers should participate in making decisions about what they do. Collaboration means they should be able to work together in effective teams. Content refers to the job's tasks. To do a good job, people need a good job to do." And while these are good things as far as they go, they really miss the point of that holy grail of managers and supervisors, namely intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, like the name suggests, comes from within each person. If we think of the (Disney treatment of the) classic story of Pinnochio, the strings attached to the wooden puppet at the beginning of the story correspond to extrinsic motivation - managers collectively playing the role of puppet master Geppetto. Regardless of whether the incentives are explicit rewards or punishments, or more subtle forms of psychological influence including participation in work assignments or pep rallies that encourage corporate mission buy-in, employees' strings are still being pulled.

Unfortunately (at least for managers), understanding the conditions by which an individual is intrinsically motivated is a one-person-at-a-time undertaking. My role* research strongly suggests that intrinsic motivation indeeds involves relationships (as alluded to by Kohn), and perhaps explains why the reward/punishment model that "ruptures relations" also ultimately destroys motivation. It also explains why people can find engagement in the context of the most difficult workplace environments, and why favourable environments can become the most off-putting and soul-destroying. Understanding your intrinsic motivators does one other thing, as well. Role* gives everyone the personal power to actualize their intrinsic motivators, in spite of the specifics of the job or circumstance. Not only does an understanding of one's role* cut the marionette strings, role* helps the individual along the path to becoming a real girl or boy.

Just call me Jiminy Cricket!

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