How do you measure employee motivation? How do you know if an employee is motivated enough … or too much? Which motivations positively affect performance, safety, and stress?  Is it possible that some motivations provide short term rewards but adversely affect productivity and profitability in the long run?

employee motivationThe subject of employee motivation rivals that of leadership development these days for the top slot on discussion boards and in board rooms. Employers are increasingly frustrated with hiring high potential employees who interview all bright-eyed and full of energy only to disappear just as quickly like a shooting star. The candidate shows only extraordinary promise during the interview only to project a bad attitude and disappoint on the job. Many people diagnose the problem as a lack of motivation.

Well, believe it or not, these employees are motivated. Some are even supercharged and highly skilled. Unfortunately they invest their energy in the wrong places – in encouraging the status quo, sabotaging projects, defending bad behavior, and tolerating negativity.

Often times, the behavior exhibited from counter-productive motivation is more subtle – chronic tardiness, displacing important files, spreading gossip.  It’s so common that that it is considered part of “normal” behavior in the workplace. But the direct and indirect impact it has on productivity, morale, and engagement is immense.

Studies have suggested that 70 percent of employees today are less motivated than they used to be, that 80 percent could perform better if they wanted to, and less than 50 percent put forth enough effort each day to keep their jobs.

One solution may lie in shifting the paradigm of motivation.

First of all, motivation that is productive goes well beyond observable characteristics like high energy and activity. The high energy, always active individual can often times be getting short term results that lead to long-term negative consequences.

Based on extensive research (Quality of Motivation (QM) Theory, managers need to start thinking about motivation as a skill. More importantly, they need to consider that there is a quality of motivation. Yes – you read that correctly. Motivation is a skill and therefore some people are good at it…while others are not. And some people are highly skilled at counter-productive motivation, behaviors that eventually leave a path of destruction in their wake.

Just like so many other skills these days, we have a chronic and growing motivational skill gap.

Here’s a very brief description about how the quality of motivation can be applied to employee motivation.

All motivation can be traced back to two simple sources: pleasure and pain. The highly productive individual has learned how to attain and maintain pleasure as well as avoid and escape from pain.

Let’s pick one of these. Why would anyone would be motivated by pain?

Have you ever heard the phrase “no pain, no gain” or “nothing comes easy’? These beliefs drive people toward pain, believing a little pain now will reap grand results down the road. Think about the marathon runner or the professional athlete. Despite the risk of chronic pain due to the constant pounding of their joints and extreme stress to body systems, these athletes are relentless in their drive to reach the finish line at any cost, even long-term crippling and incapacitating injury.

A productive response to pain is avoidance.  But don’t think of avoidance as just a natural response – it’s a skill that we learn (or don’t learn) as kids and young adults.  A counter-productive response to pain is called self-punishment. Like avoidance, self-punishment is also a motivational skill that gets us rewards and recognition – generally faster and greater than avoidance.

For example, how many times have you been recognized or rewarded for preventing a problem?  Maybe you can come up with an experience or two but generally your efforts go unnoticed and unrecognized.  But rescue the project-from-hell, take the fall for a co-worker, or pull a victim from a burning car and you achieve hero status. What employee and manager wouldn’t invest all their energies in troubleshooting and rescue when the rewards are so much better? Is it any wonder why software has so many bugs, equipment has so many defects, and customer service excellence is built on help desk response times and extended warranties? Doesn’t anyone recognize that we reward the Big Loser on TV for losing 150 pounds?

But what about the individual who maintains a healthy lifestyle, exercises daily, and eats well only to get “rewarded” with high insurance premiums to support the millions of people who are more motivated by corrective surgeries than by prevention? Managers rarely offer glowing reviews for employees who keep their head down and keep the company out of water…until they leave or retire.  But ride into work on your high horse with your white hat and you’re well on your way to Employee of the Year.

Motivating behaviors like troubleshooting more than avoidance teaches us skills that are self-sustaining but counter-productive over time. Self-punishment is a counter-productive skill that is highly regarded in today’s workplace, especially by Baby Boomers. It’s what we call workaholism.

While doing more with less is driving American productivity and admired as good old work ethic by managers, it is also driving the rates of burnout, disengagement, and chronic disease sky-high. “A little pain never hurt anyone” isn’t necessarily true. Getting workers to “tough it out” may have the short-term benefit of increased productivity but long-term negative consequence of employee turnover, injury and even premature death.

What can employers do to avoid motivating these counter-productive behaviors and ensure they are rewarding the right behaviors?

Managers must first recognize that enthusiasm, drive and high-paced activity alone are ineffective measures of motivation. People employed in your business bring their own unique motivational drivers and skills to the workplace. That explains why some people seem to run and run….and run – just like the Energizer Bunny. But at the end of the day, their counter-productive behaviors consumed as much if not more energy than what they produced. They might be your biggest producer but they often leave a personal wake of destruction in their path, often with extensive collateral damage.  Their activity and busy-ness eats up lots of energy their work habits are not necessarily efficient and the net gain of their productivity is neutral at best.

Rewarding hard work and a strong work ethic is one thing but when it inadvertently rewards motivational skills like self-punishment, the cost to the bottom line can be devastating.

Self-punishment is just one of four counter-productive behaviors that negatively motivate employees and shape a company’s culture. Motivation is more complex than just pumping up spirits and getting people to work harder. By understanding that motivation is a skill that has both positive and counter-productive effects, employers can create work environments and employee incentives that get the business results they want and avoid the long-term debilitating consequences of encouraging the wrong behaviors.