Stop de-motivating people

Fresh from running a workshop on responsible leadership, I’m feeling buoyant that the participants entered into the conversation with gusto and were open to the idea that humans engage in their work because they seek out meaning, mastery and autonomy.  To a large extent, I was not only preaching to the converted but taking the lead from them.  Their work is based on a developmental, strengths-based worldview and they do it because they see the real difference that it makes to their clients.  When I proposed that McGregor’s Theory XY and the work of Daniel Pink was providing us with a compelling case for re-visioning how we “do” leadership, there seemed to be general approval.  They seemed thrilled that there has been significant theory and research on what makes work work.  One person excitedly told the story of her previous workplace that had got to a crisis point, completely revamped its management practice and leadership approach by adopting a Theory Y attitude and turned their business around.  Similarly, we at Quantum Shift are working with a client who also views people through a Theory Y lens and is in the middle of a deep transformation of how their business is organised and the light at the end of the transformation tunnel is clear and bright.

Then my heart sinks a little as I read in this morning’s New Zealand Herald, an article entitled “Fear, greed and vanity are excellent staff motivators.”  I couldn’t resist reading, it tempted me in, much as those faux science documentaries in which the narrator at some point intones mysteriously, “Was Darwin wrong?”  This invariably causes me to exclaim, “NO!” in frustration at the thrall in which ancient myths and fairy stories still grip us.  To give the writer of that piece his due, he does start his argument with “in my opinion”, however we are on shaky ground if we base management and leadership of our organisations purely on opinion.  Haven’t we learnt that research and study goes a long way to correcting long-held beliefs that get in the way of good practice?

He closes his article by saying, “…all other things being equal, an engaged workforce is more productive than a disengaged one – but the pyramids were built with the whip. We should not forget that.”  Reminds me of that quote by Deming, “Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.”  While it may be that the pyramids were built with the whip (although I learnt when I was in Egypt recently that new archaeological discoveries are showing that it was not slave labour that built the pyramids after all), it also used to be the case that children were used as chimney sweeps, women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft and leeches were considered cutting edge medicine.  While everyone is entitled to their prejudices (for that’s all Theory X is as far as I’m concerned), it’s more than a little frustrating when someone is given air time in the business column of a national newspaper to reinforce something backed by no evidence, bar his experience as a company liquidator.  Theory X is one which is being challenged by contemporary research into what motivates people.  If we take as long to update our perspective on this as we did to acknowledge that the sun is the centre of the solar system, I predict that it will take until the year 2110 before we find workplaces everywhere have at last unleashed people’s genuine desire to do something meaningful and that work will have long since ceased to be paid-for slave labour (or that we need gamification to help us pretend otherwise).

In the meantime, we still have conversations about how to motivate employees.  Way back in 2006, a piece appeared in the Harvard Management Update entitled “Stop Demotivating your Employees”.  It came out of some research that showed that when people join organisations they are initially enthusiastic, but that they very quickly lose motivation due to management behaviours and styles.  This research, by the way, was conducted with 1.2 million employees at 52 businesses, so it’s not simply the opinion of the three authors.  The question, then, is not about finding ways to motivate and engage people.  It’s about letting them get on with it, stopping demotivating them.

Central to this is re-visioning the role of a manager.  Much of what a manager does gets in the way and leads to situations where they then ponder how to motivate and engage.  As Bob Marshall puts it in “Lay off the Managers”, we need management, but much of what managers do is dysfunctional.  If we do away with the old Theory X prejudice and embrace the science behind Theory Y, the flow on from this is that the job of managing will look and feel quite different.  Some of the things that go on in some of the businesses to which I consult include:

  • Policies and procedures that try to mitigate for every possible contingency and overwhelm people with the sheer scale of information they are required to know before actually doing their jobs.
  • Micro-managers who need to oversee not only what people do but how they do it.
  • Command-and-control hierarchies that centralise decision-making away from the point at which the decisions could more ably be made.
  • Managers who hoard power and operate out of a need to be in control of things (and when they can’t, sabotage the hard work of others).

As Deming states in this short video clip, “one is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, a yearning for learning.”  These are crushed out by “forces of destruction” throughout our lives.  He wonders out loud, “Why crush them out? Why not nurture them?”  Indeed.  He goes on to say that mere change will not do it.  “We cannot just  remodel the prison.”  He is talking about transformation, not mere patchwork, not tinkering round the edges.

Backed by research, I believe that Theory Y is in an ascendancy, albeit a slow one (cf. Copernicus).  Symptomatic of this, many managers have cottoned on to this new-fangled thing called “engagement”.  It seems that some studies have shown that businesses with motivated and engaged staff are far more productive and effective at what they do.  That’s pretty compelling.  So in the name of creating happier workers, some go through a PR makeover, adopting some kind of newspeak so that people think things have actually changed.  That, or they induce people and customers to “like” them by trying to make the same old work seem more fun and interesting.  I’m not so sure this is transformation.

Deming talks about transformation as a new kind of reward, but not one that gives you points on a leader board, an extra staff party or an incentive bonus in your pay packet.  He talks about restoring the individual.  This kind of transformation will unleash the power of human resourcefulness contained in intrinsic motivation and which people are born with.  That’s meaning, mastery and autonomy for you Daniel Pink fans.  Or self-actualisation for you Maslow fans.  Dispensing with extrinsic motivators and transforming business to release people’s intrinsic motivation can lead to less competition and greater cooperation which, in time, will lead to greater innovation, greater service, greater material reward for everyone, joy in work, joy in learning.  There is the new kind of reward.  Everyone will win in this transformation.

It truly boggles my mind that folks like the author of that NZ Herald article would consider themselves as hardworking and motivated by success yet presume others are inherently lazy, selfish and greedy.  Certainly, these are human qualities and ones which we all possess in some measure.  We are not slaves to them, however, and in my experience, under the right conditions, we will just as easily bring out the best of ourselves.  Under the kind of conditions that model and condone laziness and selfishness, however, I can understand why would people would fail to engage themselves fully.  Genuine transformation of business, therefore, is essential; this means a real systemic shift in attitudes and beliefs about people.  Getting the “right conditions” for people to flourish is a pre-condition for them to bring their whole selves to work.

In my understanding of McGregor’s Theory Y, those marvellous things he outlines will come to fruition under the right conditions.  This is important.  The conditions must be right for people to flourish just as soil must be fertile in order for plants to flourish.  If you salt the earth, nothing will grow; if you behave like Stalin (while spouting Theory Y newspeak for good PR), your people will disengage or leave or both.  As I said, the question to be asking, then, is not “How can I motivate my staff?” but “How do I need to be so that I don’t demotivate people around me?”  Some of it is related to transforming how the business organises itself, but this is inextricably linked to transforming ourselves: our beliefs and attitudes about human nature and how we relate to people.

What is required of us then?

Listening to people.  Adopt the practice of genuinely listening to people.  Acting on what you hear is part of this, too.  Come at conversations with the mindset that they will tell you something you don’t already know, something which may challenge your own beliefs or something which may teach you a lesson.  Turn off that inner monologue and consider their reality is just as valid as yours.

Enabling them to get on with it.  There are a number of enabling behaviours I set out in a previous article, “Leaders: get out of the way”.  I would strongly suggest it is more than behaviour change; once again, it is personal transformation that flows out of a meaningful shift in our beliefs and attitudes.

Acknowledging people.  This is not about praise.  Managers who steal the credit for good work are demotivators.  Acknowledging means giving people their due and recognising the contributions they make to the whole.  It means noticing when people have been of good service to others.  It means assisting people to see that their unique contributions and who they are add something invaluable.

Facilitating the easy flow of information and unimpeded access to the proper resources to do the job.  At a very basic level, a manager would do well to see themselves as the one who eases and unblocks information flow.  Hoarding information is an act of the power-hungry.

Enrolling people into a vision of something greater than the sum of everyone’s daily tasks.  Declaring a clear purpose for the business, apart from increased shareholder return or higher profit.  Keep hold of a single-minded purpose and make sure everyone has a clear line of sight to it.  What is your business contributing to the well-being of the world?

If the author of that NZ Herald article was moved to write what he did because he has witnessed indolence and selfishness in the workplace, I would suggest that it has as much to do with the kind of cynicism people bring to work when they witness their managers exhibit the same cynical behaviours and attitudes.  That Harvard Management Update found that people start a job full of enthusiasm, which, like Deming, I would say is our default setting.  The rot sets in when systemic inhumanity within the business infects them and their natural motivation is crushed.  I would also suggest it has much to do with organisations which have not put “the right conditions” in place that would allow creativity, autonomy and responsibility to flourish.  It’s also to do with managers and leaders who hold on to an obsolete view of human nature.  So it’s no surprise to me that a company liquidator would encounter people who do their best to be their worst.

13 thoughts on “Stop de-motivating people

  1. A wonderful read this morning John. Thanks. I’d love to hear more from you someday about what “responsible” leadership is. My take is that when most people invoke “responsibility”, they imply a certain morality or ethic — i.e., doing the right thing, doing what they should. How are you using it?

    1. Thanks Christopher. I’ve seen your writings on responsibility and leadership too, great stuff. I link it to “respondere”, being able to respond for oneself and being responsive to others, the context in which people lead and those in the wider system. I think there is an ethic in there because for me, responding means making an appropriate response, not an impulsive one that doesn’t take account of others’ well-being. I don’t link it to morality as such because that means different things in the modern context of religion and so on. One person’s moral act is another’s crime. There are people, for example, who may be “pro-life” (to use their terms) but may also be in favour of the death penalty, so morality can be a little blurred. I would extend it to something a little broader such as “do no harm”.

    1. Very kind Steve. You might also check out the betacodex network. They have some really good slide shows that incorporate the XY into a wider discourse about organisational transformation.

  2. Thanks for putting it all so clearly.. you may say preaching to the converted but . arn’t you just doing your best job as an educator by drawing forth what we believe to be true …. guiding us to explore and make sense of our intuitive deductions and then find the commonality amongst us .. may be a monkey story about to take effect?

  3. Thanks for your article. I feel lucky to have stumbled upon it! Currently I am reading “The future of learning”, by Marilyn and Wyatt Woodsmall. I see many parallels with your article. This book is about Michel Thomas, who, based upon deeply felt beliefs and convictions about society, democracy and the human life, developed a brilliant teaching method. Michel noticed proliferation of programmed minds and argues that already in the education system the innate drive for learning and our ability to engage in critical thinking is killed. His method serves as an example that is possible to escape from ‘thought control’ and bring back freedom of mind and the joy of learning. I warmly recommend reading this book. In order to improve the system, we shouldn’t overlook how de deal with our youth!

    1. Absolutely, becoming aware of the forces of destruction in our schools is essential. In order to prepare people adequately for the modern world, I believe our education systems need a complete overhaul. Thanks for commenting and mentioning that book.

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