What motivates us?

23/02/2011 § 3 Comments

If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de St Exupery

My wife and son are in Germany this week, visiting her parents. Before they left Dasha and I agreed a list of things for me to do – re-glaze an internal door, do some tiling, put up a shelf. But progress is slow. I enjoy DIY – I like a challenge, and the satisfaction of getting something tangible done. The problem is that at this time of year, I am more motivated to be outdoors, walking in the forest or tidying the vegetable patch, than working indoors. I love the longer days and the feeling of the earth emerging from deepest winter.

I know Dasha will be annoyed if she returns and jobs aren’t done. But it can’t be helped. Although I am naturally self-motivating, I am not always motivated to do what Dasha thinks I should be doing, or indeed what I think I should be doing- sometimes I just have to go with what I am drawn to do, and leave other jobs for later.

Motivation is an intriguing thing. In business employee motivation is probably the hardest challenge for most managers. Hence the profusion of books on “employee motivation” (an Amazon search of this phrase reveals 7,721 results). Roughly translated “employee motivation” means “how do I get staff to do what I want”.

I get impatient with a lot of traditional management speak about employee motivation, that seems to assume that people are essentially lazy and untrustworthy and will do nothing without some sort of financial or other extrinsic reward. Fundamentally people don’t need motivating – it is in our nature to want to use our hands in a productive way. We don’t need to motivate the moon to orbit the earth. Why should we have to motivate people to work?

The problem is that a lot of the work that people are asked to do holds no real interest for them. They do it because they get paid and, given the chance, will do as little as they can. They may be very motivated, but not to do what their managers want them to do.

In theory this is easily solved. A manager has to

1. choose the right staff in the first place, people of character;
2. give them work that has meaning, and show them that their contribution is valued;
3. give the staff sufficient freedom to feel they are trusted and to allow them to express their creativity, whilst at the same keeping an eye on them; and
4. lead by example (often the hardest of the lot).

Because these are pretty hard to achieve, many managers try a different route – more money. But money is not the answer. If you doubt this, see this brilliant video from the Royal Society of Arts. It may well surprise you – well worth 10 minutes of anyone’s time.

Finding meaning in work is particularly hard in businesses where the highest goals are growth and maximising shareholder value. Who can get genuinely excited about making money for a group of faceless people they have never met?

By contrast, a friend of mine worked at the department store John Lewis, where the purpose of the company is “The happiness of the staff”. He told me his colleagues there were the most motivated people he had ever met. I also love the story of how President Kennedy once visited NASA and came across a cleaner. He asked him what his job was and the cleaner replied: ‘My job is to help to put a man on the moon.’

Perhaps the most useful quality a manager can have is humility. After all, how can he (or she) be sure that what he wants to be done is what needs to be done. Sometimes the employee knows best. Dasha thinks she knows what are the most important tasks. Maybe she’s wrong.

Anyway, I had better go off and start tiling.  I will leave you as I started, with one of my favourite quotes, this one from the Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki-roshi:

The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, then watch them. “


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