Workplace Myths: Motivating People
by Rick Brenner
Up and down the org chart, you can find bits of business wisdom about motivating people. We generally believe these theories without question. How many of them are true? How many are myths? What are some of these myths and why do they persist?
In the past, we humans identified the causes of unexplained events as goblins or invisible agents. As science began to limit this behavior, we began wrapping our goblins in pseudo-scientific dress.
An example of a motivator that does work: recognition. Here the Wisconsin Secretary of Natural Resources recognizes the Town of Wescott with the Tree City 2005 Award. Present are the Secretary, the Town Forester, a Town Board Member and the Town Board Chairman. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Occasionally, some of these explanations "stick," probably because they're memorable; or they appear to have predictive value; or they're simple to explain to the uninitiated, which elevates their propagation rates; or they have value in consolidating power, which gives them the blessing of the powerful. These explanations then become the organizational form of urban legends.
Understanding which of our beliefs could be mythological gives us a decided advantage as an organization. Here are some examples of pseudo-scientific workplace myths that claim to explain how to motivate people.
- As a new manager, fire a few people to send the right message
- Some believe that the best way to show their new subordinates that they mean business is to fire a few of them, and it doesn't really matter who. Calling it anything from "cleaning house" to "reorganization," the result is the same: some people lose their jobs.
- This tactic has an unintended consequence: nearly everyone begins to feel insecure. The risk is that those who have alternatives might take advantage of them — and leave. And those with alternatives are usually the most capable people. What you get is turnover of precisely the wrong kind.
While fear might have motivated
the galley slaves of the film
Ben-Hur, there's some doubt
about whether it makes
people more creative
- Pay-for-performance is the answer to all our problems
- In its purest form, this myth holds that pay-for-performance is an effective way to manage everyone in the organization, no matter what their duties.
- Pay-for-performance policies have numerous flaws, but here's just one. Such policies assume that performance goal setting is an objective process that yields sensible results. While this may be practical for certain easily measured functions such as sales, it's difficult to imagine a practical way to implement goal setting for R&D or strategic planning. How can we tell how good an innovation is, or how good a strategy is? Those determinations take time — sometimes decades.
- The Strategy of the Whip
- The strategy of the whip holds that we can increase performance by browbeating our subordinates, or threatening them with dismissal, corporate failure, or other punitive measures.
- This approach is essentially fear-based, and it assumes that fear is a universally helpful motivator. While this might work for the galley slaves of the film Ben-Hur, there is at least some doubt that fear makes people more creative or insightful. On the contrary, effective fear-generating policies might make people and teams less creative and less insightful.
Learning to recognize workplace myths is a little like learning to recognize any other scam. Usually, they're too good to be true. More important, they tend to support the agenda of the social stratum that believes and propagates them. Be attentive to business wisdom where you work. Do you notice any possible myths? Top Next Issue
For more on achieving and inspiring goals, see "Corrales Mentales," Point Lookout for July 4, 2001; "Commitment Makes It Easier," Point Lookout for October 16, 2002; "Beyond WIIFM," Point Lookout for August 13, 2003; "Your Wishing Wand," Point Lookout for October 8, 2003; "Give It Your All," Point Lookout for May 19, 2004; "Knowing Where You're Going," Point Lookout for April 20, 2005; "Astonishing Successes," Point Lookout for January 31, 2007; and "Achieving Goals: Inspiring Passion and Action," Point Lookout for February 14, 2007.
- Mark Iocolano (Mark Iocolano & Associates, Inc.)
- Your article reminded me of an experience of a few years ago, in which I encountered a combination of the "fire/fear" motivators. A fellow manager in my organization cited a technique that he said was inspired by Jack Welch: routinely fire the bottom (10th or 20th?) percentile of performers.
Rick: This scheme (often called "rank and yank") has been used at Enron and is still (I believe) advocated by many leading consultants.
- This was the first I had heard of it and it struck me as insanity.
Rick: Good for you!
- (First of all, our organization consisted of only 16 people at its peak, all in different functions, from sales to consulting to secretarial). I suppose in some circumstances, this technique could work,
Rick: Not really. Even if the population is large, its main effect is to motivate the politically ruthless.
- But it suffers from these flaws:
- 1. It assumes that performance of the people in the bottom percentile is unsatisfactory.
- What if you happen to have an organization of people who are performing well? If you say that that's statistically and practically impossible, then what do you hope to gain by implementing this practice? Do you think you can achieve perfection, or that there is no limit to improvement — you can get consistent 10 or 20 percent increases in improvement by relentlessly firing people? If you have good people to start with, aren't they the ones who are most likely to get even better if you provide the right climate?
Rick: I think the issue is "How do we enhance organizational performance?" The rank-and-yankers want to do it by casting out the "sludge." You and I would probably agree that a more effective method might be to create conditions that enable the organization to improve overall performance.
Rank-and-yankers are also assuming that performance resides purely in the individual, and that to change the performance of the group, you have to change who is in the group. Balderdash.
- 2. It assumes that you can quickly find superior replacements to those who were fired. (Unless your goal is workforce reduction).
- 3. As you mention, unless you have clearly measurable and unambiguous standards of performance (and short-term, possibly shortsighted ones at that), how do you know which people are at the bottom? It seems to me that this practice, routinely applied, would rapidly lead to blame-shifting and risk-aversion. Disastrous particularly if team-building is important to your organization.
- 4. It creates a persistent climate of fear. It reminds me of decimation,
Rick: So true. It zeroes out risk taking and creates a motive for lying and misrepresentation.
- practiced by the Roman legions and, I've heard, also by at least one latter-day Italian general in the First World War: After you lose a battle, line up your remaining army and kill every tenth soldier. This is just another one of those rules of thumb you cite that seems tough and effective at first glance but is usually just a myth. Thanks for another fine article.
- -- Mark
Rick: You're welcome!
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