If you have ever attended a leadership training course, there is a good chance that you have heard that everybody is different, so you have to take a different approach for motivating them. Excuse me for saying so, but anyone who tells you that needs to go back to school. Why? First, because there is so much value to learning the general motivational “rules” that apply to 9.53 out of 10 humans. Second, because saying so undermines the cardinal rule of motivation which is: you have to believe that you can do it! People simply don’t want to waste their time, energy, or emotions on something they aren’t sure they can do. And that brings us to Case Study One from our previous conversation: What’s love got to do with it…
Six weeks. That’s how long it took me to start blogging. I’ve written plenty before and have usually received positive feedback about my writing. Still, my confidence faltered when it came to this particular task. The first link in my motivation chain, confidence, was broken and nothing else mattered.
Call it what you will, negative self-talk, irrational thinking, the saboteur, the devil on my shoulder, or the voice in my head, but it was saying you don’t have anything to say worth reading; you won’t be able to keep up with the work; you really can’t do it.
I know you are familiar with this motivation killer. It’s what you experience when you see a huge mess in your kid’s room. It’s no use, this room will never be clean; I can’t keep up. It’s what your child experiences when she has fallen off her new bicycle for the third time I will never be able to ride a two-wheeler. And it is what employees experience when the boss routinely changes (corrects) their work, gives impossible deadlines, and provides fuzzy performance goals. There is just no way to succeed. People who believe they can’t succeed simply don’t try. So where did my lack of confidence come from? Hmmm, I’ll have to think about that.
If you are an attentive reader, and I hope you are, you noticed that I said that confidence in my capacity to perform was just the first link in the motivation chain. The next link in the chain is trust in the connection between performance and outcomes. For me, actually sitting down to write something depended on whether I expected that publishing a blog (performance) would yield the outcomes it is supposed to like… interested readers, responses from readers, a closer connection with my clients, interest from potential clients, and maybe even more business. Did I really believe that my blog could do that? I wasn’t sure. So is there any wondering why I would procrastinate? My confidence was faltering and my trust in the outcomes was uncertain.
Do people in your organization have cause to believe that they will be recognized justly for their performance? People mostly want just one thing – that they are known and appreciated for their individual contribution. That can be communicated in many ways: with words of appreciation, a promotion, a raise, a choice assignment, a reward, public or private recognition, etc. I’ve often seen managers offer such “rewards” while unwittingly neutering their power by failing to distinguish among high, average, and low performers. Performers, when they are treated similarly to non-performers, conclude that they are not seen as any different, and that is downright offensive. Employees quickly withdraw trust and become cynical when poor performers are not dealt with. As a leader, you must make sure that people are rewarded for their level of performance.
At this point you may be asking just how I got to writing this dissertation with shaky confidence and uncertain rewards (outcomes). You may even say that it is the elephant on the page. Well, I am glad you asked! It’s the value of potential rewards (our final link) that got me to this place. While I am still not sure that I will be able to write interesting material on a regular basis, and I don’t know if I will be rewarded, the value of the potential rewards more than makes up for the uncertainty. There is a lot in this for me. I get to express my ideas (which I love doing), I can help people, I can reuse this material in leadership seminars, it may help me stay connected with clients and build interest among prospective clients. To me, that is good stuff, and so I go through with the work of getting it done.
That brings us full circle to the much maligned point that everyone is different and does in fact place different reward value on various outcomes. For one person, the opportunity to express their ideas creatively is energizing and for another it is frightening. So does that mean I am eating crow? Not really, but I may have to admit to using a bit of hyperbole. It is true that to truly lead people, you must be in relationship with them, and that entails knowing them and treating them as individuals. That is one of the difficulties public institutions have. In an effort to be fair, policy says that everyone must be treated the same – not as individuals – not as people. The result is that people neither get what they need to thrive nor contribute what they have to offer.
So what can we say about motivation from this tale?
- Motivation is the result of confidence, trust, and the personal value placed on available rewards.
- Build confidence through skills building, encouragement, and by scaling work to fit the person and situation.
- Build trust by ensuring that people actually get the rewards implied or promised for their performance.
- Reward people in a variety of ways and at a variety of levels based on their values and level of performance.
Next time, we will talk about the motivational “rules” that apply to 9.53 out of 10 humans.