Forget the carrot and the stick. In today's economy, motivation has to come from within
A company's goals are necessarily organizational: growth, profitability, market share. But goals have to be accomplished by people, and people have their own objectives. Hence the fundamental and age-old problem of management is how to motivate employees to do what the company needs done.
Traditionally, motivation has been a matter of carrots and sticks. Authoritarian-minded managers prefer the latter: supervise employees closely, reprimand or dismiss them if they screw up. Progressive-minded managers like the former, relying on "positive reinforcements" such as bonus systems and awards. Despite their differences, both groups have one big trait in common, which is that they treat people like jackasses. Move in the right direction and you'll get your carrot. Act up and you'll get a whack on the rump.
So long as jobs were simple and American corporations unchallenged, this approach to motivation won managers' hearts and minds by default. Today it's coming under attack, not least in the pages of this magazine (see "Incentives Can Be Bad for Business," January, and the follow-up exchange between Tom Peters and Alfie Kohn, April). As Michael Maccoby observes in Why Work: Leading the New Generation (Simon & Schuster, 1988), there's a reason for this. The current global marketplace is not only more competitive, it's qualitatively different from what preceded it, and the differences have dramatic implications for the problem of motivation.
Think about the connections. Today, customers expect high-quality, customized goods -- which means that employees must pay extraordinary attention to detail. Customers also expect extensive personal service, which means that employees must respond to their needs with courtesy and intelligence. As information is more widely diffused throughout the business organizations, employees are expected to work smart as well as hard. What Maccoby calls the "technoservice" economy, in short, is redefining many people's jobs. Workers who once just loaded trucks or processed papers now are expected to make judgments, solve problems, develop productive relationships with customers and colleagues -- in other words, to work like thinking human beings.
Right here is where motivational systems appropriate to jackasses begin to break down. Traditional punishments and rewards can get people to show up for work and do what they have to do to look good in the boss's eyes. But what companies need today is employees who want their performance to be good, not just look good. For that, conventional approaches to motivation are usually too blunt. No amount of supervision, for instance, can force an employee to smile at a customer and be helpful when the boss isn't looking. And no bonus system yet invented can reward someone who sees a little problem in the mail room solves it on the spot, and never tells anyone that the problem even came up.
Nearly all traditional motivation systems, moreover, are founded on the principle of treating everyone the same. Such systems may elicit similar behaviors -- they do in donkeys -- but they can't elicit similar attitudes. A reprimand may turn around one employee and only anger another. A bonus may be received gratefully or cynically, and may cause as much resentment as inspiration among those who didn't get it. Yet what a company needs in the modern economy is productive attitudes, not just productive actions. In this sense, motivational systems based on external rewards and punishments are fundamentally out of date.
What's the alternative? According to Michael Maccoby, it's to de-emphasize external motivations -- carrots and sticks -- and instead to understand people's internal motivations -- their drives, interests, and values.
Now this is a squishy notion, no doubt about it. Understand employees' motivations? (I hear you say.) Suppose they're motivated to go fishing? Bear with me. Nearly everyone wants something from work in addition to a weekly paycheck. Feelings of accomplishment or security. Opportunities to meet new people or learn new skills. Nor are people stupid; they know that what they want at work has to be compatible with business objectives. If they can further their own goals while meeting the company's, however, no manager need worry about motivation. They'll drive themselves.
What's most interesting about Maccoby's book is its investigation of people's work goals. A psychoanalyst and cultural anthropologist as well as a much-sought-after business consultant, the author has spent more than a decade interviewing and surveying managers and employees at every level. Why Work assembles the wide variety of responses that he got into half a dozen character types. "Experts" get their satisfaction mainly from the work itself -- doing a craftsmanlike job, for example. "Helpers" get their mainly from working with -- and finding ways to assist -- other people. "Self-developers" view work mostly as a means to develop their own skills, knowledge, and competencies. There are other types, too -- but you get the idea.
Because people bring different personalities and aspirations to the workplace, they react differently to managerial attempts at motivation. Experts, for example, typically treasure their independence and therefore resent managers who try to cajole or coach them into higher productivity ("A good supervisor should be seen and not heard," said one). So a good motivational tool is to give them as much freedom as possible. Self-developers, seeking to learn, usually welcome a more collaborative relationship with senior managers. ("I like supervisors who will work with you in a give-and-take relationship.") Experts may view a bonus as appropriate recognition of a job well done. Self-developers are more likely to view bonuses as manipulative, particularly if the whole bonus system is perceived as unfair or arbitrary.
What's a manager to do? One step, obviously, is to get to know your employees -- not so that you can put them into Maccoby's admittedly stereotyped pigeon-holes, but so you can understand what they're looking for from work. Another is to mistrust across-the-board incentive systems, which necessarily assume that everyone will react to carrots and sticks in similar ways.
Where possible, motivation should come from the job itself and from how it helps the company, rather than from external punishments or rewards. About half of Maccoby's respondents, for instance, view themselves as experts, saying that their prime sense of satisfaction comes from a job well done. Suppose their responsibility was not just the task at hand but figuring out how they could do it better? Manufacturing workers could investigate more efficient production scheduling, better tools and equipment, or more training. Customer-service employees might decide they needed more information -- and would have to figure out how to get it. Just such a notion, of course, is behind the many employee-participation and employee-involvement schemes that both large and small companies have been implementing over the past several years. "Participation is a way of asking the worker, 'How can you do your job better?" says one expert on the subject.
Self-developers, say Maccoby, make up about a fifth of the work force and are typically concentrated among younger workers. In some ways this group presents managers with their thorniest motivational problems. Self-developers value money, but only as "part of the total reward package they would like to negotiate." They value advancement, but only if career doesn't interfere too much with family or personal life. What they seek from work is not only a chance to learn but a chance to contribute -- which means they need to understand how their jobs tie in with the company's objectives. For the self-developers on your staff, maybe the best thing you can do is offer them regular chances to learn new tasks, all the while showering them with information about where the company is headed and how each new job helps it get there.
From one viewpoint, Maccoby's message is stark. The old methods of motivation don't work anymore. New methods will have to begin with people's own goals -- and people's goals differ. From another viewpoint, however, the message reveals an advantage small companies enjoy over their larger competitors. Most big companies feel they have to treat employees as interchangeable parts, relying on well-defined incentive systems to get them working together. Small-company managers, by contrast, don't need grandiose across-the-board policies; they can more easily tailor their motivational tools to individual interests. Growing companies in particular are constantly creating new and challenging jobs, which makes it easier to match corporate goals with individual ones.
In an economy in which success depends more and more on people pulling together -- as human beings, not as donkeys -- that's a powerful competitive edge.