The Myth of Motivation

How can employees be motivated? Not at all, actually. At least not from the outside. Real motivation comes from within and has its origin in the insatiable human need for growth.

A great deal has already been writ­ten about human moti­va­tion and espe­cial­ly the moti­va­tion of employ­ees. The best and short­est sum­ma­ry of it is by Dou­glas McGre­gor, who sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced my work on the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship with his book “The Human Side of Enter­prise” and his The­o­ry X and The­o­ry Y:

The answer to the ques­tion man­agers so often ask of behav­ioral sci­en­tists “How do you moti­vate peo­ple?” is, “You don’t.”

Dou­glas McGre­gor, 1966. Lead­er­ship and moti­va­tion: essays

Of course McGre­gor does not mean that peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly unmo­ti­vat­ed. We all have expe­ri­enced what it is like to be enthu­si­as­tic about some­thing and to burn for some­thing, and to be able to work on it or play with it and get into that state that the psy­chol­o­gist and author Mihá­ly Csík­szent­mi­há­lyi described as “flow”. So this human moti­va­tion exists with­out a doubt.

But that was not the ques­tion at issue either. The ques­tion was, how can one arouse moti­va­tion in oth­er peo­ple? And accord­ing to Dou­glas McGre­gor, there is only one cor­rect answer to this ques­tion: Not at all! Real moti­va­tion always comes from with­in. Exter­nal incen­tives at best pro­vide move­ment, but nev­er motivation.

The foun­da­tion for this insight is for Dou­glas McGre­gor, too, the ground­break­ing arti­cle by Abra­ham Maslow “A The­o­ry of Human Moti­va­tion” pub­lished in 1943. In it, Maslow clas­si­fied human needs into var­i­ous cat­e­gories and ranked them. Accord­ing to this the­o­ry, the basis is formed by ele­men­tary phys­i­o­log­i­cal needs such as eat­ing and drink­ing. They are fol­lowed by basic needs for phys­i­cal and men­tal secu­ri­ty and also basic finan­cial secu­ri­ty. Next come social needs such as belong­ing, friend­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, fol­lowed by indi­vid­ual needs includ­ing trust, recog­ni­tion, sta­tus, impor­tance, and respect from others.

Accord­ing to Maslow these first four are defi­cien­cy needs, because the non-ful­fill­ment leads on the one hand to phys­i­cal or men­tal dam­age and on the oth­er hand the over­ful­fill­ment of these needs does not bring any addi­tion­al ben­e­fit after a cer­tain degree of sat­u­ra­tion. On the oth­er hand, he sees self-actu­al­iza­tion, i.e. man’s striv­ing to unfold his tal­ents, poten­tials and cre­ativ­i­ty, to devel­op him­self fur­ther, to shape his life and to give it a pur­pose, as a basi­cal­ly insa­tiable need of growth.

Man is a per­pet­u­al­ly want­i­ng animal.

Abra­ham Maslow: A The­o­ry of Human Moti­va­tion, 1943

Accord­ing to Maslow, these needs build on each oth­er, but nowhere in his work is it stat­ed that first the needs at the low­er lev­el must be 100% met in order for the needs at the next lev­el to be rel­e­vant. And even though he address­es pre­cise­ly this pos­si­ble mis­un­der­stand­ing in the orig­i­nal arti­cle of 1943, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this hier­ar­chy of needs as pyra­mid is wide­spread. In fact, all needs are always present in dif­fer­ent inten­si­ty at the same time and there­fore this rep­re­sen­ta­tion is more suitable:

A better visualization of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Source: Wikipedia)
A bet­ter visu­al­iza­tion of Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs (Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, peo­ple can be mobi­lized when they are phys­i­cal­ly or psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly harassed. The Roman Emper­or Caligu­la already knew this, and with his mot­to oderint, dum met­u­ant (let them hate me as long as they fear me) he became the epit­o­me of the auto­crat­ic tyrant, and many more fol­lowed this path into the human abyss. For­tu­nate­ly most peo­ple today reject this kind of neg­a­tive incen­tives. With pos­i­tive incen­tives in the form of bonus­es and rewards, how­ev­er, those same peo­ple do not have a prob­lem at all, even though these use the same mech­a­nisms and have been proven not to lead to bet­ter per­for­mance in the vast major­i­ty of activ­i­ties.

In his 1968 arti­cle “One More Time: How Do You Moti­vate Employ­ees?” the psy­chol­o­gist Fred­er­ick Herzberg there­fore speaks very clear­ly of rape (neg­a­tive incen­tives) on the one hand and seduc­tion (pos­i­tive incen­tives) on the oth­er. These types of incen­tives work in the sense that they lead to a desired move­ment, but their effect is always only short-term: until the pain eas­es or until the effect of the reward has worn off through habit­u­a­tion. Cor­re­spond­ing­ly, these incen­tives have to be set again and again (in ever high­er dosages). Like a bat­tery that has to be recharged again and again. Real moti­va­tion, on the oth­er hand, does not require an exter­nal ener­gy sup­ply and works like an inter­nal generator:

Sim­i­lar­ly, I can charge a person’s bat­tery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a gen­er­a­tor of one’s own that we can talk about moti­va­tion. One then needs no out­side stim­u­la­tion. One wants to do it. 

Fred­er­ick Herzberg, 1968. One More Time: How Do You Moti­vate Employees?

Sim­i­lar to Abra­ham Maslow, on whose pre­lim­i­nary work he, like Dou­glas McGre­gor, also builds, Fred­er­ick Herzberg dif­fer­en­ti­ates between two types of fac­tors influ­enc­ing employ­ee sat­is­fac­tion. The so-called hygiene fac­tors cor­re­spond to Maslow’s defi­cien­cy needs, i.e. their absence leads to demo­ti­va­tion, but from a cer­tain degree of sat­u­ra­tion they no longer offer an addi­tion­al stimulus. 

While these hygiene fac­tors most­ly con­cern the work envi­ron­ment (rela­tion­ships, bureau­cra­cy, pay, etc.), the moti­va­tors come main­ly from the work con­tent (achieve­ments, recog­ni­tion, respon­si­bil­i­ty, per­son­al growth, etc.). Accord­ing to Herzberg, their absence does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly lead to demo­ti­va­tion, but an increase in these fac­tors stim­u­lates intrin­sic moti­va­tion. In his arti­cle, Herzberg sum­ma­rizes the main hygiene fac­tors and moti­va­tors from sev­er­al stud­ies in the fol­low­ing diagram: 

Source: Fred­er­ick Herzberg, 1968. One More Time: How Do You Moti­vate Employ­ees? Har­vard Busi­ness Review 

Accord­ing­ly, Herzberg rec­om­mends pay­ing atten­tion to hygiene fac­tors, which include in par­tic­u­lar the salary, only to the extent that they are no longer a nui­sance. True moti­va­tion must come from with­in and can only be achieved through human growth needs. The only way to get moti­vat­ed employ­ees is to give them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op and grow in activ­i­ties that lead to recog­ni­tion on the one hand and a feel­ing of mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion (achieve­ment) on the oth­er. This is one of the rea­sons why the first the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human Lead­er­ship is called: Unleash­ing human poten­tial over employ­ing human resources.

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