It’s Not a Leader’s Job to Motivate

How many articles and books do you suppose have been printed over the years that provide advice to leaders as to how they can “motivate” those who report to them? Well, a web search I just conducted on “how to motivate employees as a manager” got 33M hits (though I’m pretty sure the last article on the list won’t be very relevant to my search term). Perhaps a better indicator is my search on Amazon for publications on sale there using the search term “how to motivate employees”. That search provided“over 1000 results”. Obviously, there are a lot of managers eager to learn how to motivate their employees, and a lot of folks like me willing to tell them how.

I teach Organizational Behavior in the Business School at nearby Kent State University. One of the sessions is devoted to “Motivation for High Performance”. I start that class every semester by telling my students, “You can’t motivate your employees.” The notion that “managers motivate employees” assumes that employees are like buckets, empty of something called “motivation,” that must be filled by managers. This position sees managers as in possession of this “motivation” stuff (whatever it is). If they don’t distribute it effectively, employees won’t be “motivated” and the managers will not have done their jobs well.

I ask those students if they can imagine a scenario in which a candidate for a position tells the interviewer, “I have no motivation. It will be up to my supervisor or manager to provide that motivation if I’m to be effective in the job.” Of course, none of them have ever even considered the possibility and appropriately see it as a silly example. But isn’t that the very assumption of an article entitled “The Eight Ways to Motivate Your Employees?” That you as a manager will need to figure out just what it is that will “motivate” your employees?

The truth is that employees start out motivated but the work environments they find themselves in suck that motivation out of them. In other words, they come to the job with their “motivation buckets” filled (or mostly so), then the organization (and its managers) poke holes in those buckets.

Rather than asking the question, “How do I motivate my employees?”, managers need to ask, “How do I create a culture that leverages the motivation that employees bring with them on the first day of the job?” The first step in creating such a culture would be to make a list of all the things you came to the job already motivated to do. That list probably contains some of the following items:

  • To perform well in the job.
  • To collaborate and engage with others in carrying out the organization’s mission.
  • To participate in innovation, decision making, and problem-solving.
  • To gain new knowledge and grow in the job.

Too few organizations pay much attention to these elements. Like you, most employees are already motivated to perform well. But does the organization provide the tools, equipment, supplies, information, data, and training that enable all employees to do well? I often ask workers and staff, “What frustrates you as you try to do a good job here?” Never am I told, “We don’t get enough gift cards and other prizes.” or “We don’t have ping-pong tables here like Google does.” Most often I hear things like, “We don’t have the right tools, tooling, machinery, supplies, materials, or information to do a good job.” Just as often, I hear, “We don’t know when we’re doing a good job. But we sure hear about it if somebody thinks we’re not.”

We can consider the other elements in the same way: Does the organization make it easy or difficult for employees to work together and collaborate? Does it make it easy or difficult to participate in decision-making, innovation, and problem-solving? Does it invest in learning and growth for its employees?

Motivation, then, is an organizational issue rather than simply a management issue. That doesn’t mean that good managers can’t make changes within their departments that lead to high performance. I once knew a coal mine superintendent who was promoted from the union…so that the company could fire him! (He was known to be something of a troublemaker for the company.) Quickly, however, it became clear that the company couldn’t afford to fire him…his crew was the most productive at the mine. When I asked my friend how he had achieved that performance he replied, “I’d bring in fried chicken whenever the crew beat its previous production record.” This might seem to contradict what I’ve been saying, wouldn’t it? I’d argue that it’s consistent with my position that my friend’s crew was already willing and able to perform well…he just changed the culture so that his team knew when they had done well. Again, nobody ever told an interviewer, “I’ll need to be motivated with fried chicken if I’m to do well,” before being hired. No one ever told me that too little fried chicken was among their greatest frustrations. When the organization (and the managers in it) focus on creating a culture that acknowledges good performance and makes that acknowledgment visible, performance improves.

Born and raised in the South, living in Ohio. Writes about politics, management, and religion.

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