Employee Motivation: Finally An Explanation That Makes Sense
Employee motivation and cholesterol have a lot in common!
First of all, both are essential for life. We need motivation to thrive. We need cholesterol to protect us from heart attacks and strokes. Next, we can have too much motivation or too much cholesterol, both excesses impeding our lifestyle. Third, both motivation and cholesterol come in good and bad forms. Finally, behavior change can improve the good types and lower the bad extending the quality of our lives.
In the not so distant past, we used to worry only about our total cholesterol “score.” But then we discovered not all cholesterol is created equal. We have good cholesterol that helps us stay alive and keeps our blood flowing. But we also have bad cholesterol which tastes really good (especially when found in our foods) but over time puts us at great risk when we ingest too much of it. It clogs our arteries and makes them less flexible leading to strokes and heart attacks.
Well, the same holds true for motivation. We have good motivation and bad motivation. Good motivation is productive and positive. It helps us attain and care for things that give us pleasure and protect, protect us from stress, and relieve our pain. Bad motivation, just like bad cholesterol, feels like a good thing to do at first because it satisfies our need for immediate gratification. But long term dependence on immediate gratification and counter-productive motivation can kill our spirit as well as inflict personal pain.
Motivation it turns out is not just some intangible, emotional state that is easy to ignore. To live a productive and low-stress life, the quality of motivation must be considered.
Through decades of research we have learned that motivation is a skill. And like cholesterol, it can be measured – total, good, and bad. And if it can be measured, it can be managed. And because it is a skill, it can be learned. (Fortunately it can also be un-learned too which is good for those of us motivated by bad motivation!)
Motivation is more than just any skill. It’s a life skill we learn (or don’t learn) as kids and young adults which shape how we respond to events and interact with people in order to get what we want. Motivation is what makes us “tick.” How effective and productive that motivation is depends on the quantity and balance between good and bad motivation, or the quality of motivation.
Quality of Motivation research has identified four types of good motivation and four types of bad.
The four good (productive) motivators are:
- Attainment – the skill to pursue and get what you want.
- Maintenance – the skill to take care of the things and people you value in a timely manner.
- Avoidance – the skill to pay attention to what lies ahead and exhibit appropriate caution.
- Resolution – the skill to remain hopeful and optimistic when confronted with setbacks and challenges.
The four bad (counter-productive) motivators are:
- Defeatist – a tendency to deny yourself pleasure even when it might make your life better; leads to missed opportunity, malaise, lethargy, discouragement.
- Sabotage – a tendency to be careless with things and people you value; leads to mistakes, loss, and damaged relationships.
- Punishment – a tendency to be overconfident in your ability to assess or evaluate problems; leads to reckless behavior.
- Martyrdom – a tendency to accept defeat and resign yourself to your current state; leads to hopelessness and despair.
Like I said earlier, both the good and bad motivators are skills we learn. They form habits which influence nearly every decision we make – from pursuing a promotion, to denying our self the enjoyment of a dessert, to avoiding a confrontation with our boss, to skillfully negotiating our way out of a jam. In turn, each and every motivator stimulates a behavior that gets us something we value.
The benefits of good motivators should be obvious – getting and keeping more pleasure and joy in our lives and avoiding and getting out of painful situations.
The benefit of bad motivators may be less obvious.
It’s a sad fact but true nonetheless that the best skills many people have are driven by bad motivators. Through life they have learned to get what they want by eliciting praise, pity, guilt, and getting rescued by others. Many people have become quite skilled at sucking other people into feeling sorry for them and fixing their problems. They get other people to do their work, cover up mistakes, lie for them, and make plenty of excuses because they are highly skilled at using counter-productive behaviors. For most people, these behaviors aren’t devious or deceptive. Most of us don’t see them coming because they are so ingrained and common. Neither the doer nor his accidental the co-dependent sees anything wrong – at least not the first few times. But with the passage of time people who get through life dependent upon bad, counter-productive motivators have to pay the piper, just like people who ignore the morbid and often fatal effects of bad cholesterol.
Ultimately it’s a combination of a low amount of good motivators and high level of bad motivators that cause the most problems.
To the casual observer, one type of motivation looks like another. It’s difficult to tell the difference based on energy and activity alone. Performance driven by bad motivators can look even more intense and effective than that driven by good motivators. The observable difference is measurable by activity but by what drives the behaviors.
Bad motivators seek to satisfy a need for immediate gratification. It’s not that immediate gratification is intrinsically bad but it takes one’s attention and eyes off the future and the long term negative consequences resulting from the behavior. You rationalize eating dessert because you’re going to start dieting and exercising tomorrow. You miss an appointment or deadline because you can always reschedule. You call in sick from work because you know your co-workers will cover for you. You cancel your health insurance because you don’t feel sick. You fail a test because you stayed up and partied. The list goes on and on.
One time occurrences happen. We all play victim, screw up, and sacrifice things we value once in a while. That’s not only human but healthy behavior.
But most people don’t stop there. “Bad” motivators present convenient excuses to rationalize and repeat counter-productive behaviors. They work especially well when under stress or duress – when you need that immediate pick-me-up. They produce a short-term benefit but nearly always produce long-term negative consequences.
Behaviors influenced by bad motivators attempt to borrow and fake out time even when you have the best of intentions of paying it back later. But until we learn to master the dimension of time and can turn back the clock, counter-productive behaviors extract a heavy toll on our well-being. In the end, performance driven by bad motivators nearly always end up contributing to personal and organizational dysfunction and wreaks havoc into our relationships with family, friend, co-workers, and bosses.
Whether it’s productivity, employee engagement, quality improvement, safety focus or attracting and retaining top performs, the quality of motivation can no longer be ignored. Like cholesterol, the build-up of bad motivation is insidious and often asymptomatic. But when it strikes, the results are immediate and rarely if ever desirable or productive.
Isn’t it time to take the pulse of the quality of motivation and perform a motivational health check in your organization?