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Wondering ‘How to Motivate Employees’ Is a Management Fail

Motivation and expectancy theory give rise to a new era of management.

Key points

  • Great leaders do not ask this question.
  • Below-average managers confuse employee motivation with a failure of management systems to deliver desired results.
  • Approaches that improve outcomes for colleagues and organizations are hiring systems, clear expectations, rewards/results alignment.
Source: Prostock-Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Prostock-Studio/Shutterstock

“How do I motivate employees?”

This question has been pondered by academics and managers since the dawn of the study of management. After advising thousands of successful and unsuccessful leaders for nearly 30 years and analyzing their performance, I have observed a pattern that stands out.

Great leaders don’t ask this question. First, the term “employee” sounds condescending and patriarchal, so great leaders call their coworkers “colleagues” or “associates” or “teammates.” Second, great leaders see how management systems are the prime movers of colleague behavior and the resulting outcomes and don’t place the blame on “employee motivation.”

Below-average-performing managers wonder how to motivate employees, and it is typically because they are achieving below-average results due to one or more management system failures.

Simplifying a half-century of research in motivation theory and expectancy theory into one sentence, the literature concludes, “People do what is in their best interest to do.” People don’t “lack motivation.” Rather, they are motivated to make choices and to spend their time based on the value they expect to achieve.

Or, in psychology speak, our behavior’s direction and intensity are the net of the perceived benefits minus the costs of taking one course of action versus another. Sometimes those benefits and costs take the form of intrinsic motivators (like the joy that comes from the behavior itself), and sometimes those benefits and costs take the form of extrinsic motivators (like money or the threat of being scolded by a boss).

To me, wondering how to motivate employees is a related question to “how to get the most out of employees,” which is an even more obviously exploitative question that below-average managers ask.

Imagine how demotivating it is to work with a manager who wonders how to get the most out of you.

What brings managers to wonder how to motivate employees typically follows a breakdown in hiring systems, clarity of expectations, or rewards/results alignment.

Let me illustrate with an example first. Let’s say that Jordan is a manager and Pat is an employee at a company that sells and installs solar panels on houses. The average employee sells and installs solar panels on three houses per week. But Pat is only completing one house per week. Why?

First, Pat doesn’t like to talk with people and prefers to use tools and complete installation projects. Second, it’s not clear if Pat is expected to do the selling or not. Third, Pat recognizes that the company’s fixed salary pays the same no matter how many houses are completed in a week, and outside work, Pat enjoys volunteering, socializing with family and friends, and going on long walks.

Wise leaders see immediately that Pat doesn’t have a motivation problem. In contrast, Jordan, the manager, has a management problem.

  1. Hire right. Hiring is hard. Managers typically get it wrong 50% of the time (as defined by regretting making the hiring decision a year after someone starts). In our book, Who, we outline four simple steps that are associated with a 90% hiring success rate: scorecard (identify the outcomes that are expected for high performance), source (to generate a large pool of talented, diverse, goodhearted candidates), select (using fact-based, past-oriented interviews rather than gut feel), and sell (to ensure the well-matched candidate says yes to an offer). Poor hiring systems lead to someone like Pat, who doesn’t like talking to people, being hired for a job that requires selling. Perhaps Pat would be a star performer if the job were designed to focus just on installations and not on selling.
  2. Clarify expectations. Is Pat supposed to sell or just install? This sounds like a ridiculous question, but many large and small organizations have poorly defined job expectations that result in a diffusion of energy by colleagues. A clear set of measurable outcomes, with results reviewed frequently (either verbally or on a performance dashboard that others can see), is an antidote to unclear expectations.
  3. Align rewards to results. If it is more valuable to an organization for a colleague to deliver higher output, then it only makes sense for the organization to reward the person accordingly, if not proportionally. Attempts to “push” employees to deliver greater output, without any increase in rewards they can expect, is illogical because it is disrespectful. But a 15% commission bonus for each house completed, in the above example, would very likely lead to higher output and improved financial results for both the organization and for the colleague. Wise leaders recognize that aligning colleagues and organization success is one way to improve the “market” for a colleague’s time.

There are two big implications. One, if you are a manager and you find yourself beginning to wonder how to “motivate” employees, instead consider looking at the management systems that are influencing the choices colleagues are making about how to spend their time. Second, if you are searching for a job, do your homework and try to join an organization that seeks to align your interests with those of the organization rather than treat you like an “asset” from whom financial value is to be extracted.