Countless leaders have wrestled with the issues of motivation. How do I motivate this or that employee? How do I increase collective motivation throughout my office, department, or organization?
These questions address important workplace realities. But are the foundations of such inquiry sound? Do leaders actually motivate employees at all?
Research has suggested that a great deal workplace motivation stems from a relatively small number of sources – things like opportunities for achievement and recognition, the enjoyment of work itself, opportunities for increased responsibility, and personal growth and development.
Such studies further suggest that true motivation is not something that can be given from the outside. A sense of achievement in work well done, the satisfaction of increasing responsibility, the pleasure of doing an enjoyed task—none of these can leaders give directly to employees, like they would a raise or a benefit package.
Rather motivation comes only from within each individual person. Leaders can create the conditions in which motivation flourishes, but they never create motivation directly.
Put simply, leaders don’t motivate employees. They create cultures and environments in which employees’ inherent motivation manifests itself.
What does this mean in practice?
It means that people have good reasons for wanting to work. We want to contribute to meaningful goals. We want to be thanked and appreciated for the efforts we contribute. We want our capacities are fully utilized.
This intrinsic drive seems to lie at the heart of W. Edward Deming’s comment that excellence is 100% voluntary. His words suggest that rarely, if ever, will managers be able to “motivate” employees to excellence through the brute force of sanctions and rewards.
What they can do is create conditions in which employees are inspired to voluntarily give their all to a project or goal they believe in.
Viewing employees as unwilling partners in need of motivation, leaders place themselves in the position of continually “pushing the rope” toward excellence.
But with an understanding of the basic human desire for meaningful endeavor, leaders can embark on the far more exciting prospect of unleashing and harnessing the human spirit already filling their workplace.