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.


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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