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Motivation Matters: Seven business motivation myths

August 19. 2018 11:58PM

“I know what motivates people!”

Many, if not most, managers and supervisors confidently believe that statement. I am reminded, however, of a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.”

I would like to examine several myths that are often attached to motivation issues.

1. “Money talks. Everything else is just talk.”

Fact: An increasing body of research supports the idea that money is not the prime motivator for everyone. As long as fairness in compensation is perceived, the idea of doing meaningful work in a spirit of collaboration with colleagues leads to a stronger motivation toward one’s job. (And less turnover in the ranks.)

2. “A good manager knows exactly what his or her subordinates are doing at any time.”

Fact: Of course it’s crucial for managers to be informed of the activities in their departments, but not to excessive levels. If so, this would be micromanaging — crushing the psychological need for autonomy.

3. “Competition brings out the best in people.”

Fact: Many employees experience contests as extrinsic pressure to do their job. Also, contests create winners and losers, so unless one’s budget can accommodate a whole lot of winners, one is setting up for a lot of disappointment and resentment. Often, the excessive energy expended in trying to establish favorable contest criteria could have been devoted to helping people succeed at the tasks being incented. While the intention is to enhance motivation, the experience by employees is often one of being manipulated. Competition, when directed toward a common opponent, e.g., your business competitor, can bring out a higher level of performance, much as when a sports team excels in a championship game.

4. “Forced distribution of performance evaluation ratings keeps everybody on their toes.”

Fact: The attendant anxiety creates an amotivated work force. They’ll be stepping on others’ toes rather than lending a helping hand. This type of performance rating system is brimming with difficulties for an organization. Such a structure of the evaluation process, where each work unit must have at least a certain percentage of workers found unacceptable in performance regardless of objective data showing otherwise, is a motivation breaker. In effect, this is a “forced failure” dynamic. And they will likely be “on their toes” as they seek employment elsewhere.

5. “If a manager is complimentary, employees will expect bigger raises.”

Fact: If the positive feedback offered is communicated in a non-controlling manner, the outcome is usually an affirmation of good work being done. This is then supportive of self-motivation. If the communication is merely an attempt to get more work out of the individual, then a less desirable outcome will be likely.

6. “Good salespeople do not make good managers.”

Fact: The research on this topic is mixed. It stands to reason that, in the case of sales, some of the abilities honed in the role of influencing customers are applicable to the role of manager. This can be true in non-sales roles as well, where knowledge of a product or services is a distinct advantage to the newly-appointed manager. In any event, the prior experience would give an individual a distinct advantage over someone not having the same. When failure occurs, it is usually attributable to a lack of adequate training and preparation.

7. “Good managers intuitively know how to motivate their people.”

Fact: With the right blend of carrots and sticks, a manager can manipulate behavior. This is not motivation. These techniques can easily have a workforce devolve into amotivation. One cannot motivate others. Motivation comes from inside a person; the most desirable type of motivation is intrinsic or self-motivation. To motivate individuals, managers can provide a work environment in which employees have their intrinsic needs met, namely for competence (optimal challenge to current skills or knowledge), connectedness (experiencing mutual support and regard) and autonomy (not feeling pressured).

Many say: “It’s called work for a reason.” But the field of psychology is increasingly finding that certain elements of a job can produce increased productivity, even joy, for the worker. Based upon a growing body of empirical evidence, managers can have a powerful, positive effect on a workplace. They have the ability to not only enhance profitability, but also to provide enjoyment to workers as they contribute to the company’s success.

It is interesting to note that in Holy Scripture we find: “To ... be happy in (one’s) toil — this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19, NIV). Leading others is a unique opportunity for impact.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation, with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction and team building. Questions are welcomed at


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