A Few Thoughts About Motivation

Motivation is one of the most common work-related issues I hear from clients (“these people are unmotivated” or “we want high scores on the climate survey to improve everyone’s motivation”).  Yet motivation, especially from a performance perspective, tends to be oversimplified by most managers and executives.

First, no-one (well, other than perhaps someone who’s dead) is completely unmotivated.  We all have motivation.  It’s simply not true that a group of employees is unmotivated.  The problem is that motivation is usually a complex issue with a range of factors playing a role.  I may want to do a good job and get praise from my supervisor.  But I also don’t want to end up doing work that some slacker didn’t do—that isn’t fair.  And while I may believe in working hard I also don’t want to have to stay late and get caught in bad rush-hour traffic.  Plus, my favorite TV series is on tonight and we’re having an early dinner so I’m preoccupied by those thoughts.  And I like dealing with the immediate project I’ve been assigned but find two members of my project team to be boring or irritating so I want to spend as little time with them as possible.  And our staff meetings run on too long.  As a result, I work hard but try to look busy as quitting time approaches and on Tuesday I’m going to come up with any excuse I can to avoid extra work or find a reason to duck out early (while on Wednesdays I’m willing to stay late) and I have a reputation for sweating the small stuff and producing good work product.So…am I motivated or unmotivated?  As you can see from this hypothetical example, it’s really a case of a range of motivating factors that vary from situation to situation and even the time of day.   But managers have a tendency to label people as “highly motivated” or “unmotivated” when the reality is that all of us have a range of motivating factors that come into play.

Additionally, to the extent motivation becomes a performance issue, there is (in my experience anyway) almost always a preceding factor.  Take the example of police officers.  A common issue for veteran police officers is burnout—reaching the point where an officer concludes “it doesn’t matter if I come in today or not—it doesn’t make a difference.”  Clearly this type of burnout reflects a lack of motivation—someone who no longer cares about their job.  Yet, that officer didn’t start out that way.  Look at a class of new officers graduating from any police academy in the US and you’ll see some of the most highly motivated, energetic individuals who believe that they can make a difference.  You could find the same circumstances (to a degree) with public school teachers (who usually have tremendous enthusiasm when receiving their teaching certification yet tend to burnout in large numbers by their fifth year of actually teaching).

That highly energized police academy graduate who became a burnout case probably did so because of a series of other issues prior to the burnout.  The officer experienced promotion by examination—passing formal tests to be a sergeant (rather than accomplishments and on the job performance).  The officer was given body armor that was aging or deficient,.  That officers unit (police car) might have run unreliably and was missing some of the promised communication tools (like keyboards).  The officer might have had trouble getting rape kits (or was told that victims would be charged for those kits).  And over several years, this combination of resource and process factors produced one burned out officer.  A motivational speaker, counseling, a longer vacation, higher pay or a promotion may all address motivation per se but none of those “solutions” address the conditions (such as poor equipment) that produced the burnout.  And since the conditions producing the burnout aren’t resolved, than focusing solely on motivation as the problem is likely to be no more than a short-come fix.

So if you see a performance issue due to motivational issues, look to see what preceded the problem.  You’ll almost always find that motivation is just a manifestation of an earlier cause.

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About Joe Willmore

Joe Willmore is the President and founder of the Willmore Consulting Group. With over two decades of experience as a consultant, facilitator and trainer, he has worked with a wide range of public and private sector organizations within the United States as well as internationally. Joe Willmore is highly regarded by his peers and is a leader in his field of human performance. Specifically, he has authored four books in the field. He has been a leader within the profession, serving on the Board of Directors for the American Society for Training and Development. He was one of the first facilitators certified by ASTD to lead their Human Performance Improvement workshop series. He has been selected as a presenter or workshop facilitator for conferences by over 14 different professional societies.