Becoming a Motivational Machine

The first step to motivating is eliminating the sources of demotivation.

By Kathleen Brush, Ph.D.

In 2011, Gallup reported that 71 percent of American workers were not engaged in their work and 19 percent were “actively disengaged.” In 2012, Accenture noted that 58 percent of survey respondents were dissatisfied with their jobs. Disengaged, and dissatisfied are euphemisms for workers who are unmotivated or demotivated.

Think about the insanity of these results. Tons of productivity and wealth creation is being lost because managers everywhere are failing at their primary role: to motivate employees. Even more insane, the cure is simple: Just train managers to be motivators.

This article covers some big dividend-paying motivation topics, including eliminating sources of demotivation, and touches on some powerful tools for managers to become super motivators.

Eliminate Demotivation

The first step to motivating is eliminating the sources of demotivation. Anyone jump to the thought of eliminating a few employee slackers? Instead, take a look in the mirror. Sources of demotivation are almost always boss inspired. Employees are demotivated by conflict that stems from bad-boss decisions in the case of role, resource, and process conflict, and then conflict that flows from bad-boss behaviors. Here’s a handful of some jumbo motivation-killing behaviors:

  • Bosses who practice do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do are motivation mufflers. This include things such as chastising employees for accessing Facebook while they mingle on LinkedIn, and taking a no-nonsense approach to approving expenses while they expense wining and dining for dubious reasons.
  • Bosses who are indecisive, stubborn, cynical, unhelpful, play favorites, and choke under pressure irritate employees, which slows productivity and increases the probability of mistakes.
  • Bosses who are unforgiving, antagonistic, demeaning, unappreciative, distrustful, angry, racist, sexist, unethical, weak, or crass won’t be respected by their employees, which will drive them to disengage from work.
  • Bosses who are crummy communicators, like those with abrasive feedback deliveries, make employees feel like they’re being yelled at, ordered, or belittled. Some will say that’s normal because feedback must be delivered sternly. Wrong. Feedback can be presented in a manner that motivates employees because they feel like their boss cares.
  • Bosses who hoard information or don’t realize employees need to hear about objectives, directions, deadlines, and updates misunderstand that employees don’t find it motivating to be subjected to a daily game of “Name that Tune.”

Stop Those Bad Behaviors

Anyone acknowledging one or more bad behaviors while realizing the damage it does to your success and that of your employees? Great! The next step is to stop the bad behaviors. Try this simple mantra. Each day upon entering the virtual or physical realm of the office, whisper, “It’s show time!” The movie that’s playing is the same every day. It’s the Motivational Machine. Roll ’em.

Removing sources of demotivation by itself will yield big productivity dividends. Even better, it sets the stage for driving motivation. First, though, it’s important to recognize that there are no motivational silver bullets because employee motivations vary from one to the next, and these motivations can change based on life events, such as a single employee getting married, or changes in organizational settings, such as a company merger.

Training Aids

To reduce the complexities of motivations that are individually based and changing, there are plenty of useful training aids. One of the most valuable is the categorization of employees bysomething David McClelland calls “motivational types,” of which there are three:

  1. Power/competition motivated
  2. Achievement motivated
  3. Affiliation motivated

Money is often thought of as the 800-pound gorilla of motivation; however, it is only the power/competition-motivated employee who is strongly drawn to cash. But the real underlying motivational driver is winning. These employees see life as a constant game of winning and losing, and they are motivated to win. Being right, in control, on center stage, making millions, and having a corner office are all forms of winning. When it comes to power/competition-motivated employees, there are many motivational options.

Achievement-motivated employees also strive to win, but they define it differently. They win when they feel good about what they have achieved. Want to motivate an achievement-motivated employee? Give them a thorny task and needed directions, then set them free. Want to demotivate them? Give them something trivial and micromanage their work.

Affiliation-motivated people are energized when they work with people they like; when work is a source of social fulfillment. Want to motivate an affiliation-motivated employee? Be a boss who doubles as the team coach, or assign an employee to a group project with employees they like or admire. Want to demotivate them? Communicate in a manner that makes them think you don’t like them, or make them work in isolation from their work pals.

There is one big situation that affiliation- and achievement-motivated employees can be more motivated by money than by motivational type: when they have a present need for cash. To grasp how an employee’s present needs can influence an employee’s motivation, take some time to appreciate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow, employees are only motivated to satisfy their current need, and it generally is done in this order:

  • Physiological (food and shelter as it relates to an individual’s needs for comfort)
  • Safety (free from physical harm and job security)
  • Social (a need to feel that an employee is holding her own)
  • Self-esteem and self-actualization (the needs to satisfy an individual’s definition of self-worth and all that one can be)

Another great aid for understanding employee motivation is personality tests that identify which employees are introverts and extroverts. Don’t expect an extrovert to be motivated by a task that requires isolated focus, or an introvert to be motivated by a task that requires working the room. Cultural programming as defined by GeerdtHofstede is a great tool when working with employees from different countries. It can help a boss to know, for example, that an employee being singled out as a company star might supercharge an American but deflate a Japanese employee.

Eliminate the sources of demotivation and experiment with the tools for motivation and you’ll be on the path to becoming a motivational machine complete with rewards aplenty, from increasing productivity to driving innovation to making work a rewarding place in more ways than one. Roll ’em.

Kathleen Brush, Ph.D. ( is the author of the new book, “The Power of One: You’re the Boss.” She has more than two decades of experience as a senior executive with global business responsibilities. She has a Ph.D. in management and international studies. Brush has been teaching, writing, and consulting on international business and leadership for companies of all sizes, including those that are public, private, foreign, and domestic.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.