By David Facer, Ph.D.
A common question executives ask coaches and learning and development consultants these days is: “Since I don’t have the freedom to pay our staff more and promote them like years ago, they don’t seem very motivated. So how do I motivate them now?”
The belief underlying the question is intriguing. It seems to say that employee motivation is mainly a function of external incentives such as promotions and money. In other words, when money is tight, so is motivation. We rarely question that logic. The trouble is, by so tightly coupling employee motivation and money, we have become blind to several more important reasons employees engage in jobs and persist in their everyday work.
Executives’ Beliefs About Employee Motivation
When asked why they believe employees are mainly externally motivated, executives have speedy answers. “I believe it because I know from direct experience,” one senior executive explained. “People work for money, not for free,” he added. “It’s a lot easier to motivate employees when I can promote them and pay them more.”
“That’s what they want,” another said.
“When the economy turns down, I see a drop in morale—and productivity,” an operations director chimed in.
To explain employee motivation, though, while a seasoned manager’s considerable experience is important, it is insufficient. “What motivates you to work 60 hours a week?” I ask.
“I love my work. It is really interesting,” one said. “I have a lot of freedom to decide how I do my job. I love the autonomy”
“It’s a terrific challenge to do more with less these days,” another executive explained.
Yet another said, “Nothing is more interesting to me than piecing this huge puzzle together. Even when it’s ridiculously stressful, because I work with great people, it’s still great.”
So these executives are stimulated by autonomy, their inherent interest in their work, big challenges, and a sense of relatedness with colleagues. I can’t help but ask, “How is it that you believe you are motivated by the autonomy you enjoy, a sense of accomplishment and challenge, and the positive relationships you have, but you believe your employees are motivated mainly by external factors such as promotions and money?”
Executives—and Employees—Have It Wrong
According to research out of George Mason University, executives’ erroneous beliefs about what motivates employees are remarkably stable over time. At intervals over 40 years, managers were asked to rank the factors that motivate employees. Their lists emphasize external factors such as compensation, job security, and promotions. But when employees answer for themselves, the lists differ considerably. Employees say they are motivated by inherent factors such as interesting work, being appreciated for making meaningful contributions, and a feeling of being involved in decisions.
In other words, the employees are saying the executives have it wrong. The employees are motivated by inherent factors just like the executives are. While it is tempting to focus only on the inaccurate motivation beliefs held by executives, they are not the only ones whose motivation beliefs about others are inaccurate. Employees get it wrong when thinking about what motivates other employees and executives, too.
The Extrinsic Incentive Bias
In a series of laboratory and field studies at Duke University, subjects were asked to rate what motivates them individually, and what motivates peers and superiors at different levels in an organization. In most cases, the subjects rated their peers and superiors as more interested in external incentives than the subjects said was true for themselves. In the most extreme rating differences, the subjects said superiors were four times more likely to be motivated by external incentives.
When asked to rate the relevance of more inherent factors such as feeling good about one’s contributions, developing new skills, accomplishing worthwhile work, and the amount of freedom one has to influence one’s work, employees consistently said those factors were less important to others than to themselves.
The study’s researchers noticed that study participants were prone to two kinds of bias, which they called the self-serving bias and the extrinsic incentive bias. These biases are essentially two sides of the motivational belief coin. The self-serving bias is akin to overrating the importance of inherent factors for oneself relative to others, while the extrinsic incentive bias leads to overrating the importance of extrinsic factors such as promotions and money to others. So, like two people who talk past each other and never really connect around what is true for each other, employees and executives misunderstand what motivates each other.
Eliminating Motivational Finger Pointing
A negative impact of incorrect motivation beliefs for organizations is that leaders are likely to structure jobs, incentives, reward and recognition programs, and even compensation programs in suboptimal ways. Just like leaving money on the table in a negotiation, incorrect motivation beliefs cause leaders to “leave motivation on the table” as they underemphasize aspects of the job and the work that employees care about. In this way, the beliefs executives hold help foster the very motivational problems they are trying to eliminate.
But perhaps the biggest problem that arises from both the self-serving bias and the extrinsic incentive bias is that it perpetuates finger pointing between employees and managers. It is like blaming each other for being shallower than is actually true. In essence, it undermines trust, which, in turn, makes it difficult to work well together on the organization’s important challenges and opportunities.
Such finger pointing also makes it difficult for managers to conceive fresh ways to enrich the work environment, jobs, and everyday tasks and goals in ways employees genuinely would appreciate. From the other side, motivational finger pointing keeps employees from believing and trusting in executives’ higher intentions. Such mistrust makes it impossible to believe executives have lilting and positive intentions toward employees and the organization. In other words, employees and executives alike would find it hard to believe each is equally interested in inherent aspects of work such as the possibility to make a meaningful contribution, the opportunity for positive relationships, and a chance to grow and flourish. The result of inaccurate motivation beliefs—and the mistrust and finger pointing that result from it—is what I call “the vicious cycle of extrinsic motivation.”
The Upside of Changing Motivation Beliefs
There is a simple way to simultaneously weaken the vicious cycle of extrinsic motivation, reduce motivational finger pointing, and also enhance employee motivation. Change what we believe motivates other people. In fact, to more accurately predict what motivates others, the simplest thing we can do is reverse our habitual thinking. Instead of thinking the other person is less interested in the inherent aspects of the task, goal, or job than we are ourselves, start believing others are motivated by the same inherent things that motivate us. Put another way, stop thinking people are more extrinsically motivated than you are.
The upside potential for executives shifting their motivation beliefs is a much higher match to what is actually true for employees. Indeed, in the Duke University study cited earlier, individuals who reversed their self-serving and extrinsic incentive biases would have accurately predicted the motivation of their colleagues approximately 85 percent of the time. That is a dramatic increase from 35 percent accuracy when predicting others were more extrinsically and less inherently motivated. Executives also would do well to begin to talk with employees about the more meaning-based, growth-oriented, and relational aspects of the work. This added emphasis on the more inherent aspects of a goal or role is not to say executives should ignore the extrinsic aspects of work or organizational life. They matter. It will, though, mean no longer inappropriately overemphasizing extrinsic factors, or thinking they are all there is to everyday work for employees.
Likewise for employees who genuinely want to be more optimally motivated, enhancing their own motivation and the work environment starts with focusing their own attention on the inherent aspects of their tasks, goals, and jobs. It also includes lessening their focus on extrinsic factors such as money and status. If employees want to contribute to a healthier workplace for their peers and managers, too, and to lessening the common antagonisms and tensions between executives and employees, employees also need to reverse their belief that managers and executives are more extrinsically motivated than they are themselves.
Starting with more empathetic, trusting, and optimistic beliefs about each other gives us a fresh chance to enrich our everyday work experience. We also have a greater probability of creating positive business results, which brings us full circle to the question executives are asking about how to enhance employee motivation. The answer to how to enhance employee motivation in these challenging times has a remarkably simple and powerful starting point: Change how you think about employees—and executives—and what motivates them.
David Facer, Ph.D., is an executive coach, keynote speaker, and author who helps clients challenge conventional thinking to achieve unconventional results. He is the founder of Activate Potential Consulting, and is a consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.