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Francis Wade | How to stop demotivating your highly motivated staff

Published:Sunday | October 9, 2016 | 10:00 AM

Why is it that so many employees reach their one-year anniversary on the job only to be less motivated than when they joined?

Does it represent an inevitable decay, a psychological disaster that cannot be overcome? Or is it a result of outdated mental models?

An old man in rural Jamaica lived in a house with a zinc roof. One day, schoolchildren passing by on foot decided to stone his roof, delighted at the loud sound it made. He ran out, alarmed, and chased them away angrily. The following day, they returned with a few more friends and repeated the act. Once again, he ran them off. On the next day, just before they could escape, he approached them calmly. This time, he offered them $100 each to come back the next day and do it again. They looked at each other, agreed that he must be crazy, and arrived the next day to comply.

As promised, he paid them off, and asked them to return the next day for $50. They did, and he repeated the offer, this time promising $25.

As they received their third instalment, he apologised profusely. Money was running out. Now, he could only promise to pay a mere $1 the next day, and even less in the future. "No way! Who do you think we are?" they shouted - and never returned.

As you consider this tale you may wonder, as a manager, how to escape that trap. Perhaps you have given up trying to motivate employees ranging all the way from your household gardener to a fellow company executive. It's all a matter of luck, you argue.

Fortunately, recent research explains why a different mental model for motivation might help.

 

1. Understand Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

 

At first, the schoolchildren from our story were internally motivated, enjoying the sound their stones made. His initial, angry reaction was a surprise bonus.

Intrinsic motivation requires no one else. It enables you to take continuous action because you control your experience. The interplay between your influence and positive feelings keeps you going, even when you aren't winning or making progress.

Ask world-class performers. They openly talk about the benefit of falling in love with the practice of their avocation. While "love" isn't an absolute requirement, the fact is that those who reach top levels spend relatively little time in competition or performance. Learning to enjoy the long, tedious process of preparation is a huge plus.

Extrinsic motivation is quite different. It's an invented reward administered by third parties who set up a connection between your cause and their effect. Like the old man in our story, they craft and offer a new, extrinsic reason to act.

 

2. How Extrinsic 

motivation can Destroy Intrinsic Motivation

 

By offering the kids a cash incentive, the old man helped them forget the pure joy of stoning his roof. In his wisdom, he made a gamble: schoolchildren often lack the self-awareness required to survive such a distracting intervention.

The moral of the story is that someone else can destroy your intrinsic motivation. Even accidentally.

If this sounds like a cautionary tale for you and your employees, it should. Managers at all levels complain to me that newly hired staff members are full of ideas, energy, and willingness.

After a short while, it all starts to fade and they begin to put in just enough effort to avoid being fired. Eventually, they sound like everyone else, complaining about a paycheck they were once overjoyed to receive. Their corporate prospects degrade as their career becomes 'just a job'.

Whatever intrinsic motivation they can muster is redirected to weekends, parties, hobbies, and families.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in West Indies cricket. From all appearances, when the team topped the world, it was staffed by players who were paid little and gave much. Now, players are paid far more, while in return, they seem to give as little as possible. Painful, heartbreaking performance is only punctuated by the occasional miracle.

 

3. Conscientious Rewards

 

Each company is different, but most treat employees like kids, ignoring the internal battle between the two kinds of motivation.

The solution isn't to 'treat them like adults' in a cursory manner. Instead, your company could help employees deepen their self-awareness of what motivates them and why. They can also learn how to disentangle their thinking so that dis-empowering, tempting but extrinsic thoughts don't end up in disaster.

The old man won the battle because he was wise. However, this wisdom is not limited to the story's trickery. It can also be used to make people strong so they gain more of what they want in life. For most, this happens to include a healthy bottom line. As a manager, you may need to update your mental models to discover why intrinsic motivation has been lost and how it can be restored.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.