Motivating people, not dogs

Do you want to know the worst answer I ever hear to the interview question “how do you motivate your team”?

It was this:

I really think it’s all about beer and biccies

Well sorry pal, I really think it isn’t.

My objection was not because beer is a savoury drink, and a biscuit is a sweet food – although that’s grounds enough – it was that something as important and complex as human motivation was reduced to something as simple and simplistic as the indiscriminate provision of the occasional treat.

I can see how it would work with dogs, but people?

I was on a terrible management skills course a few years ago when someone listed “motivating the team” as a key part of the role of the manager. Anyway, I was getting bored and so I said:

I don’t think it’s the manager’s role to motivate people

The conversation moved on, but the Trainer picked up on it, and brought it back to me, asking me to explain my cheeky comment, his face crossed with concern.

So I said:

I think people are responsible for their own motivation

I was courting controversy partly for the sport of it, but also because I wanted to try out some new ideas I had about team motivation.

No one agreed with me.

Lots of shocked faces and shaking heads.

So I pushed it:

Well, I think I’m responsible for my own motivation

Everyone agreed, that yes, sure, we – as managers – were responsible for our own motivation, but everyone else …

I could see them questioning their assumptions.

If I am responsible for my own motivation, then why aren’t other people?

I let them off the hook:

I think we need to create the conditions where it’s easy for people to be motivated, and try to reduce de-motivating factors, but I don’t think we should take the responsibility of motivation away from the individuals in our teams

My argument ran that if we make their lack of motivation more about us as managers rather than about them, we turn their failure into our failure, and give them an easy way out. If they accepted the money in the bank, then there was a fair expectation of performance, and if something was getting in the way of that (e.g. demotivation) then they had to try to solve it – with our help and support, of course – but they could slope their shoulders and abdicate responsibility.

This was pretty hardline, I know. I was pushing it further than my actual opinion because I wanted to test my thinking; but even now, so many years later I still largely (not entirely) stand by this (usually, when I revisit old arguments, I discover that I was wrong after all).

It’s everyone’s own responsibility to deliver at work.

This requires them to be motivated.

It’s the manager’s job to help make this easy for them: to remove the demotivating factors as far as possible, and to manage the team properly, but the team members can’t just shrug and claim demotivation and point the finger at the team leader as if they had no role in their own attitude.

Managing them properly is a big thing, too much for the tail of this little post, but with regards to motivation it mainly means treating them as an individual and taking a genuine interest in what they are doing, providing useful, fair and meaningful (especially positive) feedback.

It doesn’t mean providing beer and biccies.



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