Misconceptions about Motivation

What motivates people?” No question about human behavior is more frequently asked nor more perplexing to answer. Yet knowing what moti¬vates another person is basic to establishing and maintaining effective rlations with others. It is absolutely fundamental to the practice of management— the art of getting things done through people.

Our folklore in general—and especially in the world of training and employee development— abounds with contradictory maxims offered as descriptions of human nature and behavior. We say on the one hand, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”; but we also point to the “Pygmalion Effect,” which demonstrates that our expectations about others can change-their behavior in significant ways. The weight of the evidence, in fact, inclines toward the latter view of behavior.

What follows are 10 “truisms” about motivation— and my explanations of why all are false.

1. We can use a carrot or, failing that, a stick to motivate people. By its very nature, motivation can be elicited neither by carrot nor by stick. The carrot-or-stick approach may cause movement; it does not create motiva¬tion. The dictionary definition of mo¬tive— “that within the individual, rather than without, which incites him to action”— makes this point clear.

When we recognize that developing people is more akin to farming than to manufacturing, we will understand better that we cannot “motivate” a person by doing something “to” him or her. We can only elicit motivated behavior; and we can only do that by creating conditions that increase the probability of its occurrence, a challenging endeavor that calls for a thorough understanding of and a genuine interest in the potentialities of people.

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2. There are goals for motivating people, or theories of what motivates people, that have general applicability.
Motives vary widely, even within the same organization. The research chemist is stimulated by conditions different from those which excite the salesperson; and what challenges the salesperson differs from what turns on he production manager or the financial analyst. There are no universally applicable tools for motivating people.

3.By studying groups— salespeople, engineers, accountants, workers, executives— we can learn more about motivating individuals. Studies to find differences among different occupa¬tional groups. Unfortunately, there is also so much variability within any one occupational group that studies of groups are unreliable guides to the understanding of what motivates a particular individual.

4. We can provide a person with a mo¬tive. Discussion of the first item indicates why this statement is false. Nonetheless, most of us have known individuals who appear to have been “turned on” by something, almost as if they had indeed been provided with a motive. Dramatic changes in behavior do occur. Analysis of such behavior changes will generally reveal that it was a turn-around of some circum¬stance in the individual’s environ¬ment that aroused him or her to moti¬vated action. A new job, a new boss, a new spouse, or a sharpening of one’s vocational goals may be such a stimulus. In short, we cannot provide a person with a motive, but we can change factors in the environment that may trigger motivated behavior.

5. If you make the necessary informa¬tion available, behavior will change.
This statement rests on the fallacious premise that knowledge inevitably leads to action; that if I know what my problem is, I will change my behavior. Most of us know that telling a paranoid schizophrenic that those voices he hears are only in his head does not stop him from hearing them. Why, then, do we think that telling our subordinate or our child, “Be more aggressive!” will make him more ag¬gressive? Indeed, much of the reti¬cence of unaggressive individuals may reflect the overload of information they have received about their “prob¬lem.” It is their self-doubt that is being reinforced.

6. The more we know about a person, the better able we are to motivate him or her. The opposite of this statement is just as valid. That is, the more you know about a person, the more you may recognize the impossibility of arousing motivated behavior. Yet, in a sense the statement is true. The more you know about a person, the better able you are to specify the conditions most likely to arouse that person’s motivation. No one is really devoid of motivation.

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In the work situation, the majority of those presumed to lack motivation fall into one of three categories: 1) those who lack confidence in them¬selves and won’t risk the effort re¬quired because they fear failure; 2) those who are bored; 3) those who don’t understand what is expected of them.

7. Incentives and bonuses motivate people. Denying that incentives and bonuses motivate people appears to attack the very foundation of our free enterprise society. Alfred Sloan speaks from a convincing stance as the builder of General Motors when he writes in My Years with General Motors, “I believe that the Bonus Plan has been, and continues to be, a major factor in the remarkable success of the General Motors Corporation.”
Sloan does acknowledge that we can never know whether General Motors would have been as successful without the Bonus Plan. There can be little .; doubt, however, that the General Motors bonus system, based as it was on total corporate profit, acted to rein-force behavior among division mana¬gers which promoted the total corpo¬rate interest. The failure of the divi¬sion managers, lords of their private kingdoms, to take a corporate view was a serious problem when Sloan first came into the company.

The key word in all this is “rein¬forcement.” Incentives and bonuses are “reinforcers,” not “motivators.” That is their significance and their value. That is also why incentives and bonuses don’t work for everyone. When they do work, it’s because they reinforce the behavior of individuals who are already well-motivated.

Compensating life-insurance sales¬persons on a commission basis is perhaps the best illustration of this fact. If incentives really motivated people, insurance salespersons of equal ability ought to have compara¬ble incomes, and their incomes should be very high because of the monetary rewards available in their occupation. In reality, the median income of life agents is about $16,000, while a signif¬icant number of individual producers have incomes in six figures. Many highly motivated individuals are at¬tracted to life insurance sales pre¬cisely because of the close relationship between effort and reward. But if the motivation isn’t there, the availability of the reward won’t put it there.

8. People cannot change their behavior unless they know what their problem is. At the level of specific skills, this is a true statement. Feedback on per¬formance is an essential condition for learning. It is a necessity in teaching skills like driving a car, typing, skiing, or operating a machine. However, when one gets much beyond the level of specific skills to the area of person¬ality traits, the statement lacks va¬lidity. Telling another person what that person’s problem is will quite likely work against developing the desired behavior. For example, urging an introverted person to “be more out¬going” may, only accentuate that per-son’s tendency to withdraw.

We gain confidence by solving problems and achieving goals within our grange of ability and experience. Confidence grows as we learn to master in-creasingly complex problems and to reach ever more challenging goals. Effective manager, teachers, and parents are those who provide opportunities for problems solving at appropriate levels of difficulty. This is what developing people is all about.

9. Eliminating stress and conflict improves productivity. Rather than improve productivity the elimination of stress and conflict is far more likely to foster an unproductive, comfortable adjustment to the status quo. It can lead to loss of the capacity to deal with real problems. Research shows that performance is enhanced when indi¬viduals experience a moderate degree of tension. It is impaired by a high level of tension.

The problem lies in making the avoidance of stress and conflict a goal in itself. Emphasis on stress avoidance establishes a new norm in the organi¬zation: agreement and conformity with what exists.

10. Basically People want to be liked and are motivated by praise. Not all people. The need to be liked does loom large in our society. But for many people, real satisfaction comes from achievement, whether or not people like them more for it.
Praise itself has varying effects; it is easily given, costs nothing to administer, and bathes the praise in a warn glow. But the time-honored pat on the back can be disingenuous. It can distract from genuine achievement by encouraging the recipient to engage it “praiseworthy” behavior. Unfortunately, praise can be interpreted at condescension, establishing the superior position of the person who raises.

There is one sense in which praise as a meaningful tie-in to motivation, ‘raise is important as a form of feed-back on performance and behavior. In asses where results are difficult to measure or are too long-term, praise is feedback on the quality of performance is important in sustaining motivation.

To sum up, efforts to influence the behavior of another person—and it is more precise to talk about behavior ;than motivation— must connect with that person’s intrinsic capacities. Rec-oganizing that changing behavior (or ”motivating people”) is more like farming than manufacturing can help maintain perspective for trainers, managers, parents, or anyone respon¬sible for the behavior of others. Just as different plants flourish with different fertilizers, different people require dif¬ferent stimuli to grow to their full po¬tential. Different people also require different kinds of challenge and differ¬ent environments to make the most of their capacities.

There is no substitute for in-depth understanding of the individual as the basis for assisting that individual to make the most of personal resources— to become, in short, one’s best self.

Source : By Howard Smith. Training Magazine, March 1979.

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