WHAT IS MOTIVATION
I've been interested in the research around motivation for a long time now. Yesterday I watched the documentary Happy which you can also watch on Netflix.
It wasn't really earth shattering, but I did really like the personal touches in the movie. The part about Japanese businessmen who suddenly drop dead (called Karōshi) was particularly moving.
In any case, the film does discuss motivation and results along cognitive psychological lines which is what I find the most interesting.
The major discussion point here is intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators are things like money, image and status. In other words, they are rewards and value judgments that come largely from the outside. Do this and you get that.
By contrast intrinsic motivators are things like personal growth, relationships, a desire to help others. In other words things that you do "when the lights are off and no one is looking." Warren Buffett once asked "would you rather be the best investor in the world but have everyone think you are the worst investor or be the worst investor in the world and have everyone think you are the best?" The answer to that (the HONEST answer) indicates an intrinsic vs. extrinsic mindset. The same question can be applied to other topics as well. I'm assuming that Buffett believes the reason why people buy high and sell low is because they would rather have people THINK they are good investors.
AND SO I TURN TO WORK…
As a "manager" I face the problem of motivation all the time. How do you get people to "be goal focused" and "understand the problem." How do you get people to "be motivated" and "work as a team." Ironically, a lot of research has been done here, and most people know what you need. You need to make the work rewarding, you need to make the team enjoy what they are doing and feel a sense of accomplishment, you need to let people feel like they are overcoming valuable challenges and that their contribution matters. Rewards, when given, must be in line with the goals.
So why do we screw this up so much? Why is this so hard?
I think a big reason is that we short cut the motivation problem and grasp at systems and phrases to try and "solve the problem." I think there really is no short path here. You have to work with people to really understand them. You have to make sure the goals make sense to the people trying to achieve them and if they don't, you have to question whether the goals DO make sense - it's not about ramming a bunch of corporate goals down someone's throat. So that’s obvious, right?
REWARD EFFORT NOT JUST RESULTS
Intrinsic rewards are associated with overcoming challenges. To motivate in this way, we have to focus on effort and not only the result. Why? Because if you reward only successful outcomes you are encouraging people to commit to the simplest problem and then overestimate the difficulty. Solving easy problems faster "than I said I would" is how you maximize your personal reward in such a system. You also manufacture mercenaries… people who see money or title as the reason for doing anything and are trying to get as much of those things with as little effort as possible.
The other danger here is that these mercenary rewards tend to work in the short run. People will work very hard and compete with each other aggressively for extrinsic rewards like money and power. But in the long run, it’s creating an unsustainable self-destructive team or organization. I think we see some of this with companies like Enron. All that mattered was the extrinsic reward (in that case, the stock price) and so internal competition that initially drove growth quickly turned to cheating, lying, and all sorts of other long term destructive behavior because the company’s goals were not represented on intrinsic motivation.
Think of it this way... Imagine you tell your kids you will pay them 20$ for every book they read. Very quickly they will find the way to “win” is to read short, easy books. Moreover, because of the extrinsic reward focus they are learning that reading challenging and difficult books is “stupid” and a waste of time. Was that what you wanted? Of course not! Instead it's far better to pay them 20$ for the activity of reading for, say, an hour. Now they HAVE to read for an hour no matter what. They are much more likely to select books the find interesting and compelling. Better still, reward them for helping each other understand a difficult concept and use the reading activity as a means to that end.
Now you also engage the cooperation element as well. You can still use the financial reward, but in that system it is in line with the intent which is to get your kids to want to learn and read.
Another reason for this problem is the concept of ownership. It's a well-known theory that things we make ourselves are far more valuable to us than things we acquire. Parents prominently display their child's artwork on the refrigerator door, but are as unlikely to sell this art to other parents as they are to buy other children's artwork. If you make a plate and cup you are far more frustrated when it breaks than if you buy it. Food you cook yourself tastes, in general, better than food you buy.
Something that hides ownership in the corporate management setting is transparency. By the time work trickles down to the people doing it, the goal has gone through 3-4 levels of telephoning such that few people understand it any more. Thus when managers are asked to do something they themselves no longer have the true purpose in mind and thus are unable to communicate it to the team. This puts them in an awkward position because team members want to know what the purpose is and assume the manager must know – after all that IS their job. If they don't know, they look incompetent. This dilemma can end in the manager simply telling people "because this is what upper management wants" or some other authoritative reason. It's very unlikely that this is the desire of the people steering the company nor will it create intrinsic motivation.
Normal solutions to this problem involve "more communication" and "more oversight." The thinking is that "the machine isn't giving us what we want so we have to monitor it more closely and hit it harder." More often than not, this leads to less ownership and more confusion.
What you really need to do is what I call "transferring the ambiguity." Most business problems are hard and ambiguous. They are distilled into theoretical solutions which are then converted into goals and, eventually, tasks. During this process, the ambiguity tends to be obscured. At many companies people working at the task level assume that “someone” knows that whatever they are working on is what the company needs. I think this is very dangerous.
It’s far better to let everyone understand the real problem “we’re facing competition and we don’t know exactly what to do” or “we’re facing a price war and think we need to reduce operation cost, or innovate, etc.” Most initiatives at companies come from some very well understood, but very ambiguous problem.
Managers often fear giving people too much ambiguity. They are worried that it will confuse and frustrate the team. They are concerned that it will shatter confidence and destroy focus.
My experience has been the opposite. Once you tell a good team that the goal is a theory that we believe will solve a stated problem (and the problem itself is only an assumption which may or may not be correct) the results are generally positive. While people DO experience the frustration and confusion, that is actually healthy. I think the reason is that now the team is motivated by overcoming a difficult problem, thinking creatively, and working together to overcome it. That is VERY different than being motivated by doing what they are told, checking off a list of boxes and then waiting for the reward.
Transparent ambiguity aligns teams to company goals. However, managers must be willing to engage in debate around both the stated problem and the assumed solution. This will likely result in modification to one or both. Once again, this is a GOOD thing because instead of the company relying on a small subset of senior “experts” it can harness the creative power of the entire organization.
Lastly, Transparent Ambiguity causes individuals to own the problem and solution. It removes authority and power as the reason for doing things and replaces it with more intrinsic motivations. It’s as if the entire company is engaging in a constant dialog around what the problems are, what the solutions are and how best to implement them.
Note that a major assumption here is that you have GOOD teams. This only works if you have people who are self-motivated, creative, open to criticism, and empathetic with others. However, I’ve also noticed that this approach reveals those qualities in people as well. I am often surprised at the creative problem solving skills and internal motivations in people that were previously buried under some kind of hierarchical structure that was limiting their role.
UNLOCK THE INTRINSIC MOTIVATION
To conclude, I think that as managers our job is to get people to feel intrinsic motivation, and also feel it myself. In essence the only difference between a manager on a team and a non-manager is what they are responsible for. In the role of “manager” I feel like my job is to make sure that the goals are well articulated, the problems well stated and the needs of the team are met. I also think it’s my job to make sure that achievements have visibility; other teams understand what we’re doing and why (to avoid duplication or trampling) and a litany of other communication and visibility tasks. My job is NOT to tell the team what to do and how to do it. I think if a team can’t figure that out and own it, I have done a poor job.