You can NOT motivate me

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

“I know you keep trying. And I know somehow, it isn’t working. You keep fiddling around the edges trying to figure out what will motivate me to do what YOU want. Stop breaking your pick on this. You can’t motivate me. There’s only one person who can motivate me and that’s ME. You are not doing your job as a manager if you fail to create an environment where I have some autonomy.”

So what if one of your best, brightest and most creative employees came to you and made this frank statement? How would you respond? I mean, after your shock, after your blood pressure recovered, after your first response of defensiveness, denial and “who the hell are you?” feelings, what would you think and how would you respond?

I can’t speak for you, of course, but I can tell you what I’ve experienced and what I’ve been reading about what the science has been telling us and what we’ve been ignoring. The “command and control,” hierarchical,

Why can't we get these people motivated?


military style organizations we have been setting up and trying to manage do not work for the “knowledge worker” organizations. Think about this. We’ve all learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet we don’t do much about changing the way we try and motivate employees. Management has made very few significant changes in the last 100 years. But our economy is “light years” away from where we were before. In this country, while manufacturing is not nearly as devastated as some would have us believe, it is certainly true that the so-called knowledge worker has risen to prominence. What have we done to make significant changes to our way of managing knowledge workers?

A few companies – you can name the big ones, Google, Best Buy and Cisco for example – have made significant inroads into finding new ways to manage the knowledge worker. And there are a bunch of small businesses, many in Silicon Valley, that are experimenting with telecommuting, flexible hours and ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). Their workers have pretty much full autonomy, along with the requisite accountability. And the companies have heeded the warning of the college professors at Harvard Business School, Northwest University’s Kellogg School of Management, the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School when they suggested a warning be applied when management creates goals:

Goals may cause systematic problems due to narrow focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organization.

So these companies are very careful about how they reward goals. They make sure that salaries are appropriate, benefits fair and competitive and that the employee has an environment that lets them be creative, appreciated and self-motivated. So back to that employee with enough self-confidence to speak truth as she sees it to power:

“Don’t get me wrong, my sister on the production line or my brother doing clerical data entry may still find it useful to earn a little bonus for achieving piece work goals. But we’ve gone way too far in this carrot and stick thing. For the most part, knowledge workers cannot be externally motivated without negative consequences for the organization. We can be inspired to achieve. And that takes creativity, authenticity and consistency to build the right environment conducive to creative work. Look for my sister and brother to say more in the next post.”