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What is your motivation?

What is your motivation?

Actors are famous for asking the question "what is my motivation?" Why does the character being portrayed do the things she does? Say the things she says? It is important because the same words can convey very different meanings. The word motivation itself has two meanings: the incentive one has to do a certain thing, and the enthusiasm for doing it. The two are often distinguished as extrinsic or intrinsic motivation.

In the workplace, many employers try to extrinsically motivate staff by linking pay to performance. The most common method in use today is "stacked rankings" in which each employee is given a rating between 1 (underperforming) and 5 (outstanding). Typically the ratings must conform to a distribution to ensure that an individual's rating is not skewed due to having a particularly demanding (or undemanding) manager.

Disincentive Pay

W. Edwards Deming pointed out the problem with such ranking systems: "The reward for good performance may be the same as reward to the weather man for a pleasant day." A top salesman may earn that spot by using deceptive practices or selling products the customer does not need. In the longer term this can be destructive. Deming says "one is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning. These attributes are high at the beginning of life, but are gradually crushed by the forces of destruction. These forces cause humiliation, fear, self-defense, competition for gold star, high grade, high rating on the job. They lead anyone to play to win, not for fun. They crush out joy in learning, joy on the job, innovation." When considering this quote, it is important to remember - Deming was a statistician, not a psychologist!

Within the distribution of performance, why would we call it an "incentive" to acknowledge that most employees fall within the natural variance? Is it motivating to learn that, despite one's best efforts, his performance is statistically indistinguishable from that of others? Of course not - it in fact has the opposite effect. Rather than encouraging teamwork and improvement it encourages selfish behavior, or doing the minimum necessary. A better strategy would be to improve the overall system: work for a tighter distribution with a higher mean performance.

Praise the Slightest Improvement

Dale Carnegie has a similar philosophy. He says that the way to spur people on to success is to "praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise." By calling out small improvements by each employee, and providing the reward of praise, bad behaviors can be crowded out. Collectively, the improvement of many individuals will lead to the improved system Deming encourages.

Carnegie is quick to distinguish praise from flattery, however. Praise should be specific and sincere. Point out the exact behavior that earned the praise, not simply a job well done. "We all crave recognition, and will do almost anything to get it. But nobody wants insincerity," he adds.

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Photo by Julien Harneis

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