To Motivate or Not to Demotivate


Some people tell me that "you cannot motivate a person". You can only "remove the impediments that prevent a person from being motivated". Or, in other words, "you can only eliminate demotivation".

Well, I don't agree!

Can you make a person happy? Or can you only eliminate the things that make her unhappy?

Can you make a person laugh? Or can you only eliminate the things that make him cry?

These sound like silly questions. But I have been told a number of times now that trying to motivate people is a bad idea. Yet, I simply could not imagine this to be true, given the fact that it is quite possible to (try to) make people happy, or to (try to) make them laugh.

Fortunately, I came across this article on Harvard Business Review. It appears that researcher Frederick Herzberg found out (fifty years ago already) that motivation and demotivation are two very different things:

The things that make people satisfied and motivated on the job are different in kind from the things that make them dissatisfied.

Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work, and you’ll hear about an annoying boss, a low salary, an uncomfortable work space, or stupid rules. Managed badly, environmental factors make people miserable, and they can certainly be demotivating. But even if managed brilliantly, they don’t motivate anybody to work much harder or smarter. People are motivated, instead, by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility. These intrinsic factors answer people’s deep-seated need for growth and achievement.

So, it turns out that I'm right after all. Yay!! You cannot motivate a person by "eliminating demotivation". Only taking away the things that make people dissatisfied, will simply result in people having neutral feelings towards their jobs. But that's not enough. You also have to introduce things that motivate them. I have depicted this in another blog post as a Motivational Balance Sheet. The stuff that demotivates people (and I know they can always name something…) are on the left side of this balance sheet (which is personal and different for every employee). The things that motivate them are on the right side.

Sheet

Motivating people means: removing things from the left side and adding things to the right side of the balance sheet.

The idea that you cannot motivate a person is wrong. I suspect that it has grown out of failed "motivational" initiatives like company slogans, posters, pep talks, performance reviews, and coffee cups with the text "teamwork" printed on it. I agree that those practices are probably not the best way to motivate most people. But there are bad ways and good ways to do things. And it's the manager's job to find out what the good ones are…

Note: Frederick Herzberg also tells us that motivation is an intrinsic thing, which means that you actually cannot directly motivate a person. You can only try to influence their motivation. That's true. But it also applies to people's demotivation. And therefore I only consider it just a semantical issue, that bears no relationship to the motivation-vs-demotivation issue.

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  • http://management.curiouscatblog.net/ John Hunter

    Reading Frederick Herzberg is the most important thing. I think that when he says “motivation is an intrinsic thing, which means that you actually cannot directly motivate a person” that is important. But I agree once someone basically understands what Herzberg is saying they are in the right frame of mind and actions will be good.
    Douglas McGregor is another leading thinker in this area.
    A big problem with thinking you motivate a person is that it leads to you thinking you need to change them. I believe you need to set the conditions that will let them advance. But it can seem like a semantic argument.
    You can definitely change behavior through incentives and dis-incentives. It is good to think about these matters, but those reading Herzberg are not likely to be those that are likely to focus on motivation in a way that will create a bad work system.

  • http://blog.mendeltsiebenga.com Mendelt Siebenga

    Doing something or not doing something is always relative to what people are used to. For example not having a dresscode isn’t really motivating. Having a dresscode is demotivating (for some people).. But because having a dresscode is what people are used to in most companies not having a dresscode is actually something that can positively set you apart from those other companies.
    I find most people start work more motivated than they end up. Compared to the ‘normal situation’ the best thing most companies can do is just leave me to do my work. If a company has all kinds of corporate policies in place that make it harder for me to do my work then elaborate schemes to “get me more motivated” usually end up being counterproductive. If the basics aren’t there then “eating roti with boss” does nothing for my motivation.
    So of course you can motivate people. But not demotivating people is a far better strategy for most companies.

  • http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2008/10/07/motivate-or-eliminate-de-motivation/ Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

    Motivate or Eliminate De-Motivation

    A huge failure I still see is managers thinking in a theory x way, 50 years after McGregors The Human Side of Enterprise.

  • Victor

    And please don’t forget that different people are motivated by different things.
    Some are competitive and like competition and might be motivated by that. Others are NOT competitive and are strongly demotivated by competition-talk. Etc.
    If something motivates you, it doesn’t mean that it will motivate your colleague.

  • http://noop.nl Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks for your input guys!

  • http://edgehopper.com Chris Spagnuolo

    Hi Jurgen. Organizations try so many different tactics to motivate others and themselves and continually fail. I think it’s because they overcomplicate what motivation is. I think if you boil it down to it’s essentials, in order to truly motivate yourself or others, you can do two simple things:
    1. Make it enjoyable
    2. Use positive public pressure
    I recently wrote a post about this. You can check it out at http://edgehopper.com/discipline-versus-motivation/

  • http://edgehopper.com Chris Spagnuolo

    Hi Jurgen. Organizations try so many different tactics to motivate others and themselves and continually fail. I think it’s because they overcomplicate what motivation is. I think if you boil it down to it’s essentials, in order to truly motivate yourself or others, you can do two simple things:
    1. Make it enjoyable
    2. Use positive public pressure
    I recently wrote a post about this. You can check it out at http://edgehopper.com/discipline-versus-motivation/

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jurgenappelo/ Jurgen Appelo

    Chris, you might be right about that. I’ll check out your post. Thanks!

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