Stop Motivating Me

Read Bob and Anne’s column in the McHenry Business Journal

From June 2007 McHenry Business Journal –

Please … Stop Motivating Me!

– Anne Ward & Bob Sandidge

“Human souls come into this world full of passion and purpose. And then well-meaning parents and teachers start trying to motivate them.”

– Kelly Bryson author of “Don’t Be Nice, Be Real”

In business that quote might be rewritten: New hires come into the company full of passion and purpose. And then well meaning managers and bosses start trying to motivate them. One of our clients describes it: “I watch new people come into our agency and you can see that they’re filled with enthusiasm and hope – it’s like a little flame. They can’t wait to make a difference, and they’re excited about joining us. But it doesn’t take too long before that spirit gets dampened. It’s so discouraging … through time, you can just watch that flame of purpose and passion flicker and go out. How can we keep that spirit, that energy alive? How can we fan that little flame and help it fulfill its promise rather than stamp it out?”

There is great distrust in our culture that human beings will do what is needed for themselves or others unless they are threatened with punishment or coerced with rewards. Author Alfie Kohn in his book, “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes,” points to the basic strategy we use to raise children: “You do that, and then I’ll give you this reward.”

In an interview, Kohn was asked, “What’s the trouble with rewards?” He said, “First let’s define the term. A reward is not just something nice or desired, it’s something nice or desired that is offered contingently when someone complies with our wishes or does something we like. If I give you a banana, that’s not a reward. If I give you a banana for having helped me around the house, that’s a reward. I have no objection to taking a kid out for ice cream, but I have a serious objection to saying, ‘If you are good this week, I’ll take you out for ice cream.’ More than 70 studies have found that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. It’s not just that rewards are ineffective over the long haul; it’s that they are actively counterproductive.”

So what’s a manager to do? According to Kohn, “set up certain conditions that will maximize the probability of [the employee] developing an interest and remove the conditions that [constrain].” To do this, Mr. Kohn suggests that managers need to “attend to three fundamental factors”: Collaboration, content, and choice. Before focusing on the “three C’s,” managers must first remove the barriers.

Get rid of “merit” rewards. Get rid of at-risk pay, so employees can stop worrying about money at work. Forego all “recognition” ceremonies, plaques, and certificates. Recognition interferes with the first “C” – collaboration. Employee evaluations must go. Quality guru W. Edwards Deming called the merit system “the most powerful inhibitor to quality and productivity in the Western world.” He goes on to emphasize that it “nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and … leaves people bitter.” He doesn’t stop there: “Punitive strategies, such as holding out the possibility of termination or demotion for inadequate performance, are counterproductive in the extreme – not to mention unpleasant, disrespectful, and in general, an intrinsically offensive way to deal with other human beings … punishment typically leads not to improvement but to defiance, defensiveness, and rage.”

Organizational development expert Douglas McGregor says that the answer to the question “How do you motivate people?” is, “You don’t.” When you take an “eyes wide open” look at the results of our attempts at motivation, it’s easy to see that we’ve been missing the mark for a very long time. Sure, we can motivate ourselves and others to do things through threat of punishment or promise of reward, but at what cost? At the cost of the very passion that gives us the drive, discipline, and diligence to produce excellence?

As managers and business owners, perhaps it’s time we step back and evaluate our own ideas about motivation. Perhaps it’s time we develop new non-coercive approaches to self, employee, and team motivation. An approach that brings more harmony, passion, fun, enthusiasm, loyalty, and productivity to our work places.

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge of CreativeCore in Algonquin are marketing and media consultants who are motivated by helping clients to overcome the marketing myths that are keeping them and their businesses from unbounded success. E-mail them at