The Myth of Motivation

How can employ­ees be moti­vat­ed? Not at all, actu­al­ly. At least not from the out­side. Real moti­va­tion comes from with­in and has its ori­gin in the insa­tiable human need for growth.

A great deal has already been writ­ten about human moti­va­tion and espe­cial­ly the moti­va­tion of employ­ees. The best and short­est sum­ma­ry of it is by Dou­glas McGre­gor, who sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced my work on the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship with his book “The Human Side of Enter­prise” and his The­o­ry X and The­o­ry Y:

The answer to the ques­tion man­agers so often ask of behav­ioral sci­en­tists “How do you moti­vate peo­ple?” is, “You don’t.”

Dou­glas McGre­gor, 1966. Lead­er­ship and moti­va­tion: essays

Of course McGre­gor does not mean that peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly unmo­ti­vat­ed. We all have expe­ri­enced what it is like to be enthu­si­as­tic about some­thing and to burn for some­thing, and to be able to work on it or play with it and get into that state that the psy­chol­o­gist and author Mihá­ly Csík­szent­mi­há­lyi described as “flow”. So this human moti­va­tion exists with­out a doubt.

But that was not the ques­tion at issue either. The ques­tion was, how can one arouse moti­va­tion in oth­er peo­ple? And accord­ing to Dou­glas McGre­gor, there is only one cor­rect answer to this ques­tion: Not at all! Real moti­va­tion always comes from with­in. Exter­nal incen­tives at best pro­vide move­ment, but nev­er motivation.

The foun­da­tion for this insight is for Dou­glas McGre­gor, too, the ground­break­ing arti­cle by Abra­ham Maslow “A The­o­ry of Human Moti­va­tion” pub­lished in 1943. In it, Maslow clas­si­fied human needs into var­i­ous cat­e­gories and ranked them. Accord­ing to this the­o­ry, the basis is formed by ele­men­tary phys­i­o­log­i­cal needs such as eat­ing and drink­ing. They are fol­lowed by basic needs for phys­i­cal and men­tal secu­ri­ty and also basic finan­cial secu­ri­ty. Next come social needs such as belong­ing, friend­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, fol­lowed by indi­vid­ual needs includ­ing trust, recog­ni­tion, sta­tus, impor­tance, and respect from others.

Accord­ing to Maslow these first four are defi­cien­cy needs, because the non-ful­fill­ment leads on the one hand to phys­i­cal or men­tal dam­age and on the oth­er hand the over­ful­fill­ment of these needs does not bring any addi­tion­al ben­e­fit after a cer­tain degree of sat­u­ra­tion. On the oth­er hand, he sees self-actu­al­iza­tion, i.e. man’s striv­ing to unfold his tal­ents, poten­tials and cre­ativ­i­ty, to devel­op him­self fur­ther, to shape his life and to give it a pur­pose, as a basi­cal­ly insa­tiable need of growth.

Man is a per­pet­u­al­ly want­i­ng animal.

Abra­ham Maslow: A The­o­ry of Human Moti­va­tion, 1943

Accord­ing to Maslow, these needs build on each oth­er, but nowhere in his work is it stat­ed that first the needs at the low­er lev­el must be 100% met in order for the needs at the next lev­el to be rel­e­vant. And even though he address­es pre­cise­ly this pos­si­ble mis­un­der­stand­ing in the orig­i­nal arti­cle of 1943, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this hier­ar­chy of needs as pyra­mid is wide­spread. In fact, all needs are always present in dif­fer­ent inten­si­ty at the same time and there­fore this rep­re­sen­ta­tion is more suitable:

A better visualization of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Source: Wikipedia)
A bet­ter visu­al­iza­tion of Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs (Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, peo­ple can be mobi­lized when they are phys­i­cal­ly or psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly harassed. The Roman Emper­or Caligu­la already knew this, and with his mot­to oderint, dum met­u­ant (let them hate me as long as they fear me) he became the epit­o­me of the auto­crat­ic tyrant, and many more fol­lowed this path into the human abyss. For­tu­nate­ly most peo­ple today reject this kind of neg­a­tive incen­tives. With pos­i­tive incen­tives in the form of bonus­es and rewards, how­ev­er, those same peo­ple do not have a prob­lem at all, even though these use the same mech­a­nisms and have been proven not to lead to bet­ter per­for­mance in the vast major­i­ty of activ­i­ties.

In his 1968 arti­cle “One More Time: How Do You Moti­vate Employ­ees?” the psy­chol­o­gist Fred­er­ick Herzberg there­fore speaks very clear­ly of rape (neg­a­tive incen­tives) on the one hand and seduc­tion (pos­i­tive incen­tives) on the oth­er. These types of incen­tives work in the sense that they lead to a desired move­ment, but their effect is always only short-term: until the pain eas­es or until the effect of the reward has worn off through habit­u­a­tion. Cor­re­spond­ing­ly, these incen­tives have to be set again and again (in ever high­er dosages). Like a bat­tery that has to be recharged again and again. Real moti­va­tion, on the oth­er hand, does not require an exter­nal ener­gy sup­ply and works like an inter­nal generator:

Sim­i­lar­ly, I can charge a person’s bat­tery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a gen­er­a­tor of one’s own that we can talk about moti­va­tion. One then needs no out­side stim­u­la­tion. One wants to do it. 

Fred­er­ick Herzberg, 1968. One More Time: How Do You Moti­vate Employees?

Sim­i­lar to Abra­ham Maslow, on whose pre­lim­i­nary work he, like Dou­glas McGre­gor, also builds, Fred­er­ick Herzberg dif­fer­en­ti­ates between two types of fac­tors influ­enc­ing employ­ee sat­is­fac­tion. The so-called hygiene fac­tors cor­re­spond to Maslow’s defi­cien­cy needs, i.e. their absence leads to demo­ti­va­tion, but from a cer­tain degree of sat­u­ra­tion they no longer offer an addi­tion­al stimulus. 

While these hygiene fac­tors most­ly con­cern the work envi­ron­ment (rela­tion­ships, bureau­cra­cy, pay, etc.), the moti­va­tors come main­ly from the work con­tent (achieve­ments, recog­ni­tion, respon­si­bil­i­ty, per­son­al growth, etc.). Accord­ing to Herzberg, their absence does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly lead to demo­ti­va­tion, but an increase in these fac­tors stim­u­lates intrin­sic moti­va­tion. In his arti­cle, Herzberg sum­ma­rizes the main hygiene fac­tors and moti­va­tors from sev­er­al stud­ies in the fol­low­ing diagram: 

Source: Fred­er­ick Herzberg, 1968. One More Time: How Do You Moti­vate Employ­ees? Har­vard Busi­ness Review 

Accord­ing­ly, Herzberg rec­om­mends pay­ing atten­tion to hygiene fac­tors, which include in par­tic­u­lar the salary, only to the extent that they are no longer a nui­sance. True moti­va­tion must come from with­in and can only be achieved through human growth needs. The only way to get moti­vat­ed employ­ees is to give them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op and grow in activ­i­ties that lead to recog­ni­tion on the one hand and a feel­ing of mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion (achieve­ment) on the oth­er. This is one of the rea­sons why the first the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human Lead­er­ship is called: Unleash­ing human poten­tial over employ­ing human resources.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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