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Motivational Techniques: Right or Wrong?

Motivation is a complex subject. We traditionally think the only way to get a person to do something is to reward them or punish them. In other words, there is always a consequence, either good or bad, which motivates others to perform. There are two common consequence techniques used, which are the whip, and the carrot. But there is one more approach to motivating, called the plant.

The carrot is the incentive or reward. This includes time off, pay bonuses, or promotional gifts or “swag”. While this approach may work in many instances, it’s been demonstrated that offering carrots will actually reduce productivity.

The whip threats and motivates with punishments. Although such techniques are often perceived negatively, they do have their place for short-term goal achievement. In other words, employees never respond positively to this management style, but if the boss “cracks the whip”, they will get things done. This can include suspension and termination, of course, but those are extreme. Sometimes we just need a little stick, such as a lack of a carrot, which might include no recognition or no promotions. However, if you only use the whip and ignore people after their good work, your means of motivating will backfire.

Finally, we have the plant, which represents the environment or ecosystem. A leader can create a heathy ecosystem within their organization by ensuring that employees know that their work is important, employees are able to have open and honest discussions, they are treated fairly, training is readily available, they have good lines of communication, and an atmosphere where they feel of supported and have high self-esteem.

When it comes to linier, predictable tasks, incentives temporarily led to greater production. But, when it comes to more creative results, problem solving, or innovation, pay for performance typically backfires. In Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, we learn that if we pay people to donate blood, we get fewer donations. When we reward a lab monkey to solve puzzles, they solve less. When we reward children for drawing pictures, they draw less.

High levels of creativity come from tasks that we find interesting, challenging, and captivating. As a leader, your task is to create a climate where employee’s internal motivation will activate their own performance. To be successful, leaders need to know their staff, what motivates them, and how to create an environment that they find stimulating.

The truth is that we can’t motivate other people. Motivation comes from within. However, what we can do is provide the right atmosphere for employees to identify their own motivations, link into them, and respond. So, before you reach for that carrot or whip, try having a conversation with your employees and learn what they find interesting, the type of challenges that keeps them productive, and the type of work that captivates their attention.


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