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Jack Dunigan


Three Motivators That Really Work

When profit is disconnected from purpose, bad things can happen

Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 12:01

Graham was a salesman of specialty products with a proven record of success. His many years of experience had yielded a high degree of confidence in himself and the products he sold, and an advanced level of competence in his craft as a personable, trust-inspiring, responsible salesman.

The retail company for which he worked was one of the many big-box stores that now dominate the marketplace in North America. The management structure of the one he worked for was a little murky. According to the organizational chart, his supervisor was the sales manager of the entire store. But that position was eliminated, and his new supervisor became an assistant manager who was over that area of the store. Then each department had a manager whose job it was to maintain control over the inventory, to solve whatever customer service or contractual problems that might arise, and to complete the large volume of reports mandated by the suits at the corporate office.

At some point in this chronology, those suits reorganized the management structure again and added another responsibility to department managers, that of managing the sales staff.

You can probably see the problem coming. Managers whose job it had been to handle objects—inventory, reports, and contracts—were not necessarily capable of managing people. In fact, most often these types are ill-equipped because people are not paper. Not even close.

Graham walked into his department one morning to discover a new manager had been installed. She was a young girl Graham had met at a training seminar a few weeks before. Graham adhered to the company’s dress code, which called for modest apparel. She did not. She dressed in clothing that looked like she might have purchased when she was 10 years old but somehow believed would still fit her ample frame. They didn’t.

But worse, she simply would not shut up and let Graham and the other salesman in the department do their jobs. They would be in the middle of a sales presentation, and she would butt in, interrupt the conversation, then take it over. Because her priorities were the paper she would often interrupt the preparation of sales proposals and contract negotiations the salesman were working on to have them count inventory or complete a report, jobs which had traditionally been the role of the manager.

Over time, the situation deteriorated, provoking both salesmen to polish up their resumes and begin the search for another job. Both had become completely demotivated. This situation, in principle, is repeated somewhere every day.

Here’s a secret: Motivation is a lot easier to kill than it is to create. Why? Because motivation almost never is the issue; leadership is. Most people are already motivated. The only time a leader or manager should wade into the motivation issue is when a subordinate is motivated toward objectives that are contrary to those of the department or company.

Another manager in another store addressed this in a general post on the company’s employee forum. Here is what he wrote:

“The big thing here is that no two people are the same. What motivates one person will turn another individual off entirely, so you are only getting 50 percent of your potential from the two people. This is also where the business manager loses so many people’s motivation. Yes, the store has targets and promotions to achieve that are required by the corporate mandate. But quoting facts and figures really doesn’t push everyone’s buttons, except for perhaps the ones who want to become business managers themselves.

“Ask yourself this question: Which scenario will get more from this particular individual? Telling him that the store is down by $50,000, and it needs to be made up by the close of the weekend; or highlighting that an CSA (customer service associate) did a fantastic job of creating a really eye-catching display in her department? For me it is a no brainer. It is the second one. To start with, that person will have a value within the store. You know that sales in that particular item will be better due to the display. Also, other members of the store will be motivated to take customers to the display to show them and close more sales. This will have a domino effect because other members of the store will want to create something in their department, either to gain recognition in their own right, or to just make their department better.

“For the ‘business’ manager, it is wins all around. He has a motivated member of staff driving sales, which will increase takings and help to achieve what he needs: reduce the shortfall of his $50,000. What’s more, he need never have told that person about the shortfall in sales because that was not what drove him in the first place.” (Emphasis mine.)

There was a study conducted at MIT on motivation in the workplace. The findings were fascinating: For tasks requiring mechanical skills, money worked very well as a motivator. Producing whatzits out of whozits at a faster rate can be inspired by offering more money.

But once the task required even rudimentary cognitive skills—e.g., creativity, innovation, selling away from a script, and the like—monetary rewards did not work well at all.

So what does work?

When a task gets more complicated than making whatzits out of whozits, when it requires conceptual or creative thinking, other components seem to work better.

Let me clarify what I’ve just said. I am not implying that money is irrelevant in most cases. The same study found that if you don’t pay people enough, motivation suffers. This remained consistent even beyond mechanical-skill jobs. So we need to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. The thinking that needs to be challenged is that more money alone will motivate in cognitive-skill jobs.

Here is what the study discovered does motivate:

Autonomy, the ability and freedom to be self-directed. People who are on the move hate roadblocks and detours. Too often, as in Graham’s case, management ceased to be management and became meddling. He was pulled off course too often and required to perform jobs that effectively nullified his autonomy.

Sometimes insecure leaders demand compliance from their employees because they do not trust them to get the job done unless every process and sequence is orchestrated. This is counterproductive, but insecure leaders point to mediocre results and reassure themselves that it would have been even worse had they not interfered.

This style of management is terrific if you want compliance. If you want engagement, if you want to create a team of associates who will extend your reach, multiply your effectiveness, and divide your work, you need something other than compliance. You want engagement.

Engagement means that people integrate with their jobs. They internalize it. They take their jobs personally. What they do to has become a validating factor in who they are. Inept managers like the one mentioned above fail to understand this at all. or if they do acknowledge it, they do not appreciate, it which results in disaster.

I wrote in an earlier post how a sales manager would walk rapidly through a department and drop a piece of paper on the desk. On the paper was printed the month’s sales goals. The salesmen simply threw the paper away without reading it. Why? Because productive and autonomous people respond far better to mutually set objectives.

At Atlassian, an Australian company, developers get a 24-hour period per quarter to work on anything they want and with whomever they want. They get paid for that 24 hours, but there are no financial bonuses. They must report their results at the end of that time in a cake-and-beer kind of meeting, but what they do is up to them. Results have included new product lines and software fixes.

Mastery, the urge to get better at stuff that interests you. Mastery can’t be mandated because then it becomes a task, and incentive disappears. Like all intrinsic motivation, mastery is internal and personal. There is a band called Brylcreem that plays occasionally here in our community. They are one of the best I have ever heard. They perform almost nonstop for three hours. Their fee is negligible, hardly pays expenses. So why do they do it? They love it. They practice, they perform, they improve because they are motivated to master their craft. They do it because it is fun and brings them satisfaction and fulfillment.

If you doubt this motivator works, simply look at Linux, which powers one in four corporate servers in Fortune 500 companies. There’s also Apache, which powers the majority of web servers. There’s Wikipedia and WordPress.

Making a contribution. Highly skilled people work on projects outside their jobs because they want to make a difference. It makes us feel good, worthwhile, and useful. I belong to the great brotherhood of ham radio operators. We donate thousands of man-hours to help out in times of crisis and disaster recovery. Why? Because there is a higher motivator than money. I also am a volunteer mentor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which donates significant amounts of time to help others make a better life for themselves. Recently, seven of us volunteered to help polish the job interview presentations of graduating medical technicians. Around the table sat almost 300 years of business experience. Why? Because we made a contribution.

All three motivators can be summed up in one word: purpose. When profit is disconnected from purpose, bad things happen. Ethics go out the window. Slimy customer service results. Purpose, the marriage of autonomy, mastery, and contribution, motivates companies and the people who staff them to do their absolute best in performance and product development.

When we treat people like people instead of like they are smaller, slower, better-smelling horses, the results are phenomenal. Companies and organizations that do treat people like people not only make themselves better, they also make the world better.



About The Author

Jack Dunigan’s picture

Jack Dunigan

For more than four decades, Jack Dunigan has been leading, consulting, training, and writing. His experience is varied and comprehensive. His training and consulting clients are as varied as the Chief Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court to a top-rated campsite management company. But his advice is not merely academic. His blog, www.ThePracticalLeader.com, is focused on practical advice for leaders and managers of businesses, corporations, nonprofit agencies, families, organizations, departments, anywhere and anytime a person leads others. His latest book is Three Absolutely Necessary, Always Present Skills of an Effective, Successful Leader (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2012).