Stop Trying to Motivate Your Employees!

Stop trying to motivate your employees! Sounds crazy, right? After all, what company doesn’t want motivated employees? They all do! Motivated employees work hard, work smart, enjoy coming to work every day, and give their absolute best effort. So why then would I advocate that managers and leaders stop exhausting themselves trying to figure out how to motivate their troops? If you make it to the end of this article, I hope it will make sense—and that you’ll agree with me!

What is motivation?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one definition of motivation is: “The act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.” Implied in that definition is the fact that the person doesn’t want to do “the thing” and, therefore, needs to be coerced. I don’t like that definition (all apologies to the fine folks at Merriam-Webster) because it suggests that motivation is purely an external influence tied to performance of a specific task.

The folks across the pond at Oxford University Press do a better job defining motivations as: “The reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.” At least this definition is ambiguous as to the source of the motivation.

I much prefer the definition of motivation found on “Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal.” Not only does this definition acknowledge that much of one’s motivation comes from within, but it also suggests that motivation is tied to one’s long-term goals and beliefs (not just some short-term task). Psychology expert Kendra Cherry agrees, noting that “[Motivation] involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior.”

Your people ARE motivated!

So, if you accept the belief—as I do—that motivation is largely internal and wired into one’s DNA, values, and beliefs system, then you need to realize that your people ARE motivated. If they are not performing in the way you want, it’s not because they aren’t motivated. It is that they are motivated to do something else! Their motivations differ from those of you or the company. This is a “motivational fit” problem. One reason for this could be that you have the wrong people “on the bus” (or simply in the wrong seat on the bus). For deeper insight into this subject, see my previous article on employee engagement. Another reason for this could be that the leader or organization is doing something to suppress or inhibit their motivation.

The role of leaders

Leaders play two critical roles when it comes to employee motivation:

  1. Understand what motivates your employees and inspire them to act on their motivations. I’m not talking out of both sides of my mouth here—this is not the same as trying to “motivate your people”. This is tapping into their existing motivations, getting out of their way, and allowing them to flourish. The Platinum Rule by Tony Alessandra and Michael J. O’Connor provides strategies you can use to discover the motivations of others.
  2. Don’t do things to demotivate your people. When you fail to understand what motivates your employees and you try to bribe, influence, or otherwise induce them to behave differently, you actually demotivate them. This is why most corporate attempts to motivate their people only have short-lasting impact or fail altogether. Ways leaders regularly demotivate their people:
  • Fail to support new ideas and encourage individuality
  • Fail to empower people with an appropriate level of authority and responsibility
  • Fail to celebrate wins and personal milestones, and acknowledge professional achievements
  • Fail to listen
  • Fail to encourage friendly competition
  • Fail to provide clear direction
  • Fail to set attainable stretch goals
  • Fail to set an example and be a leader worth following
  • Fail to mix things up, foster creativity and innovation, and keep people from getting bored
  • Fail to make work fun and enjoyable
  • Fail to embrace diversity and welcome individuality

The next time someone in your organization says, “We need to motivate our folks,” I hope alarm bells sound in your head. Ask yourself if you or your organization are doing anything to demotivate them. Spend your time identifying and removing those obstacles to your company’s success. You will be more fulfilled and so will they!

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