10 Myths about Motivating People … and the Real Truth

Introduction repeated from yesterday:

Spend enough time in meetings or the executive lunchroom, and you’re destined to hear your fair share of managers’ complaints about their employees.

But as these leaders vent their frustrations, they’re actually looking in the wrong direction.

Here’s the real truth: If employees aren’t motivated, then we should look to their managers and organizational practices. Those who dismiss their teams’ grievances can sabotage staff performance and bottom-line results.

If you want your employees to perform to their best abilities, take some advice from organizational behavior expert Stephen P. Robbins, PhD, author of The Truth about Managing People (FT Press, 2007). Contrary to much of the misleading, generalized and inconsistent information found in business books, Robbins has researched human behavior and provides practical advice on what works – and what doesn’t – when managing a team.

As Robbins points out, traditional workplace incentives and disincentives function as cues for employee decision-making:

  1. “Do ____, and you’ll get a bonus.”
  2. “Don’t do ____, or you’ll get fired.”

This approach discourages employees from examining the reasons why a task may or may not make sense. It forces them to make quick, intuitive decisions based on behaviors the system has historically rewarded and punished. But there are sometimes uninvited consequences.

I discussed the first 5 myths yesterday.  These are the remaining 5.

Myth #5: Happiness leads to “flow” experiences.

When you are deeply involved in your work, nothing else seems to matter. You lose track of time – a state known as flow. Smart managers know that flow is a particularly fertile work condition.

Flow experiences are periods of deep concentration during which workers report feelings of gratitude and satisfaction. Can managers take steps to create this state? Absolutely.

To enter into flow, employees must be:

  • Challenged
  • Goal-directed
  • Provided with feedback
  • Allowed total concentration and creativity

Flow will materialize only when managers give their employees sufficiently challenging tasks and the necessary time to apply creativity without distractions and interruptions.

The Real Truth: Flow is most likely to be experienced at work and requires periods of intense concentration, without distractions. Managers can ensure that working conditions allow such concentration and minimal interruptions.

Myth #6: Feedback needs to address personal qualities.

Telling employees that they’re doing a “good job” isn’t good enough. Neither are comments about attitudes or efforts. Feedback must be specific and about behaviors, not personal attributes.

No matter how upset you may be, limit feedback to job-related issues, and never criticize someone personally because of an inappropriate action. This is counterproductive, as it evokes strong emotional reactions that bury actual feedback.

The Real Truth: Feedback is effective when it is specific to behaviors and impersonal. Feedback should be descriptive, rather than judgmental or evaluative.

Myth #7: Reward behaviors that indicate high performance.

Unfortunately, it’s easy – and often tempting – to measure the wrong indicators.

For example, the number of phone calls an employee places doesn’t measure customer relationships or sales. And when managers reward individual accomplishments, yet consistently say they’re team-focused, employees take notice.

When you discuss the importance of quality work, pay special attention to employees who exceed their production goals, but churn out below-average work. Be sure to send the right message.

The Real Truth: Managers routinely measure behaviors they’re trying to discourage and fail to reward the ones they actually want. You get what you reward. If you want quality, reward it – and avoid rewarding quantity.

Myth #8: Reward absolute results.

We know that employees make comparisons and look at relative rewards. They evaluate what they bring to their jobs, in terms of experience, effort, education and competence, with the rewards they receive: salary, pay raises and recognition.

Employees compare their situations to those of friends, colleagues, competitors or prior jobs. They assess how equitably they’re being treated.

Your team will likely be motivated when members feel they are equitably rewarded for their contributions. When they feel under-rewarded, they become angry, and this perceived inequity can lead to absences, reduced productivity, fudging on expenses and/or requests for a raise.

The Real Truth: People compare their rewards to those that others receive. As a manager, you cannot overlook this fact, and you need to be sensitive to the perceptions of relative rewards.

Myth #9: Low-skilled workers receive pay and benefits commensurate with their value.

How do you motivate individuals who earn very low wages and lack opportunities to significantly increase their pay or receive promotions?

Traditional approaches have focused on providing more flexible work schedules and filling these jobs with teenagers or retired people.

But something isn’t working: Turnover rates at fast-food restaurant chains still hover at around 300 percent annually.

Some chains have experimented with stock options and incentive pay; broader responsibilities for inventory, scheduling and hiring; and retirement plans, health insurance and scholarship money. But over a four-year period, turnover rates have been only minimally reduced: approximately 160 percent to 223 percent.

The Real Truth: Unless pay and benefits are significantly increased, high turnover will likely continue in these jobs.

Myth #10: You can systematically apply motivation strategies to produce high performance.

Job success depends on having adequate support resources. No matter how motivated employees may be, they won’t perform well if they lack equipment, work space, supplies, skills or others’ cooperation. They will quickly lose motivation, no matter the incentives or rewards offered.

As you determine why a particular worker is performing poorly, examine the work environment to see if it’s supportive. Employee performance is a combination and interaction of:

  • Ability
  • Motivation
  • Opportunity

The Real Truth: Regardless of motivation, employee performance will suffer if the work environment is unsupportive. The most willing and able employee may face obstacles that constrain performance.


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