The Myth of Motivation

After the Montreal Olympics the Velodrome, the indoor-bicycling stadium, was made available to amateur road-racing teams for winter practice. The Velodrome’s hardwood floor extended smoothly from a horizontal start to turns with near vertical walls. It was quite a place, especially when ranked teams were practicing. As a wide-eyed beginner on a small local team I’d gaze at the gravity-defying speeds of the riders in their colorful jerseys as they jockeyed up and down the wall for position. Each major team had several coaches standing on the sidelines, screaming encouragement, “Allez, allez, allez!” (“Go, go, go!”), almost continuously as each rider passed by. These coaches, I learned, were volunteers who gave up their personal time from 6 to 10 pm to lend their knowledge, enthusiasm and passion to their teammates.
At about that time I began a new job as sales director for a healthcare company. During the first week I managed to meet all of my sales reps with the exception of Frank. He was on vacation and would be back at work the next week. A few days before Frank’s arrival, the company president pulled me pulled me into his office, closed the door behind him, and lowering his voice conspiratorially said, “I don’t want to influence you but I think you’ll find that Frank has to go”. “I’ll bet you don’t want to influence my decision,” I thought, but kept it to myself. Instead, I asked him why he felt that way.
“Frank simply can’t sell,” he said. “He wasn’t cut out for this job. He has no energy or drive, and no people skills. I inherited him from my predecessor and if I didn’t feel sorry for him I would’ve fired him months ago!” By the time I left his office I wasn’t looking forward to meeting Frank.
The Monday of his return to work, I was standing at the main reception desk picking up messages. The low winter sun shone from behind Frank as he entered, and all I could make out from his silhouette was a tall, slim man. Until that moment I’d always thought the expression “dragging his feet” was an exaggeration, but as he entered, slightly hunched, I could hear the soft scuffing of his shoes as he dragged them ever-so-slightly across the carpet. My heart sank.
He approached me and I got a clearer view of his face under the fluorescent ceiling lights, and was startled by a vague sense of recognition. As I held out my hand it came to me: he was one of the coaches from the Velodrome – one of those people filled with energy and enthusiasm, a teacher able to inspire others to do better than their best! He smiled and shook my hand. “Hi, I’m Frank. I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”
Over the next few weeks I worked with Frank in the field, and most of what my boss had said was confirmed. Frank was two different people, one on and one off the job. When I next met with the president he asked about Frank and I said, “You weren’t entirely right…Frank’s a very highly motivated individual.” He looked as if I’d lost my mind. “The trouble is, he’s not motivated for the work we do here”.
This story poses a crucial question. How do you connect traits to behavior, abilities to achievements and talents to success? The answer of course is motivation. The ease with which we use this term in daily life belies the fact that after more than a hundred years of debate, even psychologists have trouble defining it usefully. For example, “Motivation is the ability to bring talent to bear on achieving some task or objective.” Is that a useful definition? In high-school physics we learned that energy is “The ability to do work,” but that’s really a circular definition: We can’t understand work without understanding energy, and energy means nothing if we don’t grasp the meaning of work. So it is for current definitions of motivation; we only know for sure that individuals are motivated to do something when they’ve actually done it!
Despite many theories of motivation, and ongoing debate among psychologists, generations of managers and business leaders have been saddled with the daunting responsibility of “motivating others.” And while this competency is increasingly demanded of anyone with supervisory responsibilities, it is to a large extent illusory. But don’t just breathe a sigh of relief just yet…you still have a large role to play in the motivation of your employees. While the belief that we can actively motivate others may be an illusion, one thing’s for sure: The conditions created in an organization either can enable motivation to flourish or suppress it completely. Back to the world of physics and the Law of Conservation of Energy: “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed”. So it goes for motivation: “Motivation is neither created nor destroyed”, but it can certainly be stifled or diverted into things that have nothing to do with the work at hand.
There are two keys for enabling highly motivated people in your organization. First, hire people who are motivated by what your business does and needs doing. Second, build a company culture predicted on the Three Pillars of Great Company Cultures: Transparency (Everyone should see and interpret Leadership and Management actions in the same way and based on the same information), Consistency (Whatever is done for one person or group should be done in the same manner for all consistent with the rights and privileges of their position), and Participation (Everyone should be involved in the decisions that are likely to affect them). People working in great company cultures are more likely to be highly motivated and perform at higher levels, as well as being resistant to competitive hiring initiatives, regardless of salary. Crafting the “Want To” workplace is both possible and a great way to increase productivity, lower supervision needs, and increase profitability.