Why Trying To Manipulate Employee Motivation Always Backfires

CEOs have two levers they pull on a regular basis to influence their organizations. The first lever adds to, or takes away from, strategic intentions. The second one controls the hiring of key talent to ensure that the right people are in the right seats.

Levers work well for many of the factors that impact business success; but one area—employee engagement—resists "leveraging." Even after a decade of trying, organizations as a whole have made little progress on improving employee engagement. Disengagement still stands at about 70 percent, the same as when Gallup first started publishing data on the topic in the late '90s.

Why the struggle with improving this particular area? In short, it’s because you can’t control motivation. While traditional carrot-and-stick levers can influence behavior in the short term, they do not create the intentions to apply discretionary effort and work collaboratively that are required in today’s more sophisticated work environments.

It’s time for a change

The research is clear, and has been known in social science circles for decades: Carrot-and-stick thinking is, at its core, a control method—and people always resist being controlled. Even if they don't openly resist, people resent being coerced into certain behaviors.

People have their own beliefs and attitudes about their work environment. They make decisions about what is in their best interests based on individual perceptions of what is adding to—or taking away from—their sense of well-being. Building on the pioneering work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, our recent research into motivation and employee work passion is finding that perceptions of autonomy, relatedness, and competence are the factors that lead to positive employee intentions to stay with organizations, apply discretionary effort, and be good corporate citizens.

We are finding that giving people a chance to succeed in their job and setting them free to a certain degree is the key to motivation, as opposed to trying to direct and control people's energy. It's really about letting go and connecting people to their work—and each other—rather than channeling, organizing, orchestrating, and focusing behavior.

The role of senior leaders

Senior leaders have an important role to play in creating this type of environment. Top leadership sets the tone for this attitude in a company. But many organizations are still set up—explicitly or implicitly—in ways that work against these three motivators.

For example, a woman recently told us her CEO believed that a little bit of fear was good and that moderate to high levels of competition between people and business units were beneficial and kept the company sharp. This attitude of friendly competition inside the company permeated the culture, flowing out from the boardroom and cascading throughout the organization.

This approach had worked for this technology company in the past, but began to become a liability as customers asked for more cross-platform compatibility. Because customers were asking for everything to work well together, these internal divisions needed to cooperate more effectively. This required the different business units to think beyond self-interest to the whole customer experience. It proved difficult to change the mindset of this historically competitive culture.

Without a shift in thinking at the top of an organization, it is almost impossible to change an organization’s culture. A study conducted years ago shed some light on the role of senior leaders in changing organizational culture and behavior. The study concluded that the CEO’s disposition and personality had everything to do with the company's service orientation and collaborative mindset.

CEOs whose personalities and dispositions were more competitive had a direct influence on the degree of competitiveness and fear experienced by members of their senior leadership teams. This resulted in a greater degree of siloed behavior within the organization and less cooperation among sub-units. The net results were less integration across the business, less efficiency, poorer service, and ultimately lower economic performance. On the other hand, CEOs who were more cooperative generated less competitiveness—and less fear-based anxiety generated better results.

Leaders as environmentalists

It's important for today's leaders to be environmentalists. Whatever level of leadership you have, challenge yourself and others to use less directing and controlling behaviors and instead look to create a focused and inspired workplace. Customers are requiring that organizations move toward an environment of internal cooperation to create truly innovative new products and services.

Today we realize that control doesn't work. Find a way to connect your people with the big picture. Create an environment free of fear and anxiety. Leaders don’t need a new lever—they need a new approach to bringing out the best in people. Give a little bit. You’ll be surprised at what can be accomplished when people are free of fear and find their motivation within, instead of being controlled by external carrots and sticks.

Scott Blanchard is the cofounder of Blanchard Certified, a new cloud-based leadership development resource and experience. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Miller]

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  • Phil Matthews

    I strongly believe attempts to manipulate employee motivation by itself are as pointless as a search for fools gold.  True leader should understand that their employee see and feel everything their management team do.  The truly effective leadership creates an business environment that establishes a focus on personal/team performance.  Employees need to understand how success is valued, measured and have examples rewards achieved.  Individualswill seek out the recognized performers for guidance and mentoring opportunities.

    Performance metrics, understood and well communicated will always lead to a properly motivated work force.  The only caveat I would add is that need for consistance of message, accomplishments acknowledge and or promotions, and rewarded must be performanced base.

    Political, relationship based promotions/rewards must be discouraged, eliminated where possible and or minimized! 

    Once an organization established a "go a long to get a long" promotional pattern whether real or preceived Employee Motivation is a lost cause.

    So in closing, I believe the establishment of a PERFORMANCED BASED environment is step one.  Employee motivation can not be manipulated it must be grown!

    Phil Matthews

  • 1ericholz

    As a long-time creator of human engagement and compliance programs with a previous life as an executive recruiter...I agree with the basic premise that the construct of punishment/reward has no long-term viability in today's (or tomorrow's) workplace.

    HOWEVER, after 20+ years, almost 5,000 clients (with millions of stakeholders); my take is a bit different...

    The issue is not "management" and levers, nor is it the "employee" and freedom ~ the real issue is the "individual" (in all senses of the word). I mean this in two ways:
    1) Managers/owners should be allowed to do any-thing they want, any-time they want, any-way they want. Then reap the rewards, suffer the mediocrity, or die in the failure. Equally true, employees should have those same "rights."
    2) So, if like-minded managers and employees (PEOPLE) get together who fundamentally share that "compatible" vision/direction, then everyone is inspired to be personally motivated by essentially the same overarching goal(s). If that is not where ANYONE is at, or what they are actively looking for -- RUN!

    DON’T GIVE THE CORRECT ANSWER ~~ give each other YOUR answer!

    Is this a recipe for anarchy -- no! It is the responsibility and right of every individual to find their work/life/ soul-mate and to not got to bed with the first, or even a prudent, “date” just because you can. Have integrity; be honest with yourself and them.

    In the myriad polls that are regurgitated by talking heads (TV, radio, web, etc.), how many people, are wholly unhappy, dissatisfied, or downright angry about their job, working conditions, employees, managers, blah blah blah.

    Joseph Campbell is credited with saying "follow your bliss."

    So, I think the real, un-addressed, question here is why does lazy pragmatism will-out over honor and integrity? The manager hires a worker for technical skills (or mirror fogging) not "fit" -- by the same token, the employee takes the job for money not fit.

    Who is responsible and who should bear the burden of loss when the “marriage” inevitably disintegrates?

    Over the years, we have created programs that address these human-connection issues. Sadly, I must say that some have been more successful than others. Why, because of the people involved; not the mechanics. Until we can address the underlying issue of bliss/fit, almost everything will revert to temporary carrot/stick, employee turnover will remain ridiculously high, "satisfaction" surveys will tell us the same thing, and companies will continue into the tar pit with the Mastadons and Sabre Toothed Tigers not knowing what this hot gooey sticky stuff is that is holding them down.

    Every one of us has the right and obligation to just say no and follow our bliss! Check out Greg Koch's history and his company Stone Brewing - AMAZING! BTW, I neither like beer, nor am I associated with him/them in any way. Just met him once and followed up on the story.

    Finally: I've got to take a moment to say I HATE the use of the word “motivation” when referring to anyone other than yourself. You can be inspired by others, but only you can motivate you!

    ATB ~ Eric

  • David Casullo

    David Casullo - author of "Leading the High Energy Culture" (McGraw-Hill, 2012)

    Scott (and Ken) are crusaders in the area of leadership driving engagement.  Deci's and Ryan's empirical evidence confirms that intrinsic motivation is our drive to do something interesting and satisfying, and the work environment either supports or detracts.  It's a fact and it's becoming more vital as generation Y talent emerges.  My experience working with driven, highly successful CEO's has been trying to change them is difficult, if not impossible.  Success does not make the need for change obvious.  However, CEO's all want to extract the potential productivity, innovation and collaborative power from their talent, at every level.  The answer lies in the "second in command."  CEO's who choose a second in command they trust, who see what they see, and can convey the message powerfully as a trusted partner to other executive team members and to the key peer leaders throughout the organization can improve engagement, complement the CEO's strengths for leading the business, and seize the  enormous value potential within their organization.  Think Tim Cook and Sheryl Sandburg.

  • MTS

    Isn't this repurposing exactly what Daniel Pink said about the importance of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose?  Google it, look at the TED talk on YouTube... It's all there.

  • Christine Medeiros

    An employee will never reach their potential if they're controlled by fear - they will simply do the minimum they're told to do. It restricts creativity. However it still works in some industries with a specific employee type, every employee is different the leader must adjust how they lead accordingly.

  • Martin Haworth

    This is absolutely right.

    Motivation isn't something you can switch on at will. It is a required attitude and behaviour set that has, at its primary level, relationship building and understanding of employees needs at the fore.

    Motivation isn't a thing. It has to be earned over time by senior executives through how they are with their people and how they appreciate that they are an asset to be nurtured proactively.

    Until senior management is prepared to feel and resolve the pains that their procedures and policies engender in their people and fix them, that disgraceful figure of 70% will remain, with all the inherent costs to the bottom line that causes.

    We are struggling with many, many inept managers who are clearly not fit for purpose, many times being appointed by those who do not know any better themselves.

    Those organisations who have got to the bottom of this are the most likely to survive and thrive.

  • Craig

    Scott, you gave us some interesting thoughts to open the mind. The article needs some specifics. While vague statements like "connect your people with the big picture" and "look to create an inspired workplace" might satisfy the requirement to complete an article by a deadline, they give the reader little to change. Be specific.

  • anne sweeney

    This is what Bill Scotti tried to implement at store 792 Petsmart Danvers, but the DM Ray West was living in the past.  Utilizing his fear tactics as he did while working with CVS.  CVS also uses fear or loss of position to intimidate managers and workers.  The end result was that Bill Scotti developed and built Boston Pets, as a Retail Development Manager he proved his skill sets.  At a later date Ray and Jim Morris the RGM congratulated Bill.  However it was too late for these skill sets to be utilized as they could have been, had the DM retained Bill, empowering him to take over and excel for the benefit of Petsmart.  Instead another company benefited from Bill's talents.  And to this day Mr. Scotti moves from company to company offering ideas and innovations.  The one human trait which holds all business models back, big and small is jealousy and greed.  Until we defeat those attributes, many business managers and leaders have, we will always lose great talent to other companies with open arms to take them. 

  • Gwcoyne1147

    Part of the problem is perception on the employees side. Management tends to handle things in a way that makes the employee feel like they are beneath or lower than management which causes inequity.
    A company I used to work for had management sneaking around with an observation sheet check list whatever. We are humans not machines. Until corporate management figures this out they will continue to struggle with lower level employees. Some companies use GPS tracking and other covert tactics.
     Focussing on the bottom clouds the judgement of corporate leaders.
    I will never work in a corporate enviorment again as long as I live. I would rather be poor than have a corporate ring in my nose again. Big corporations steal from middle and lower class Americans. CEOs and upper management fill thier pockets at the expence of lower and middle class workers. Corporate management is still in the dark ages. Until they figure out how to treat human beings, this will be the norm. Corporate Policies and directives suck and employees have no leverage in corporate enviorments. CBRE NWNA

  • Nathan Zeldes

    "You’ll be surprised at what can be accomplished when people are free of
    fear and find their motivation within, instead of being controlled by
    external carrots and sticks" - I wouldn't be surprised at all, of course. It's been clear to me throughout my career, both as an employee and as a manager.
    I suspect that the real issue is that senior leaders can't easily dial changes in their behavior - if they believe in a fear-based environment, that's how their brain is wired, and changing it is a major challenge even if they wanted to change, which many don't...

  • Douglas McKee

    Motivation is never enough anyway, because motivation is the reason we do things, not the skill to do them.

    Almost all the problems in a disengaged workplace are the results of bad relationships.
    By repairing the relationship environment and the managerial practices that breed and foster enmity, the energy that was once wasted in workplace emotional combat becomes available to pursue the clearly stated goal of the organization.
    Until that energy becomes available, nothing new can happen.
    Building good relationships and repairing broken ones is the means and the end of the process of Engagement.  

  • Jamie Notter

    Yes. Control and engagement simply don't mix. That's why the numbers on employee engagement are always so horribly low. We argue in Humanize (www.humanizebook.com) that this control mindset (based in machine thinking) is holding organizations back in many ways and organizing around human principles can help us advance.

    The one part of your article that rubs me the wrong way is the assertion that the top leadership must change if you want culture change. It might be true, mind you, but it still bugs me. I really want to believe that it can start from the bottom--or maybe even more importantly, from the middle. Can you share a link to that study that concluded CEO change is a prerequisite?

  • Wize Adz

    "Today we realize that control doesn't work."

    And yet, why did it work in the past?  My hypothesis is that most of the grunt work has been automated by the huge advances in technology that have occurred over the last 60 years o so, and so most of the work that's left requires self-direction and decision making.

    I have no idea if it's backed up by data, but it's a compelling notion that I've been thinking about for the last year or so.

    "Find a way to connect your people with the big picture. Create an environment free of fear and anxiety. Leaders don’t need a new lever."

    I've worked with a surprising numbe rof people who are clearly floundering around looking for the right button to press or lever to pull in order to get me to do what they want (especially during my days as a deskside IT guy).  This is infuriating, and anyone who is looking buttons to press on an organization, or scripts to follow, to make it behave a certain way is going to get poor results.  You've got to start with the premise that the organization is a human community, and then influence the community and its members.

    When I was thinking about this on a personal level, I phrased my personal relationship to the levers-and-buttons hypothesis of work-relationships this way: I take orders like a chef.  If you ask me for chopped liver, and tell me why you need it, I'll use my creativity to get you the best I can make -- even though I personally don't have a taste for it.  But, if you ask for chopped-liver-sir-yes-sir, that's all you're going to get.  Which probably  probably got work dine with groups of guys digging ditches in the 1930s, but now ditches are dug by one person driving a piece of heavy machinery whose real job is to figure out *how* to dig the ditch -- rather than to move the dirt.

    Anyway, I'm still think about this.

  • I/OPSY

    The thinking that control does not 'work' is, in fact, not new...  The foundations are presented in Deci and Ryan's (1985) Self Determination Theory, which posits that perceived control supplants intrinsic motivation explaining, at least in part, why external stimuli (as a motivator or better said, demotivator) aren't as useful or enduring when compared to those generated from within.  This body of inquiry has been a subject of study in achievement (in education) for years and is now, finally, showing up a goodly bit in performance related research.  

  • kentlundgren

    Is the organization's values ​​essentially the same as yours and are you satisfied with the leadership, then the question of motivation is a non-issue

  • BZimmer

    Milko.  You write as though you're extracting thought bits from some clumsy AI algorithm - or worse, a spreadsheet from your performance management software - with a Moose and Squirrel tincture of eastern block poetry.  If you manage others - in any other geography - please stop.  Cede the position and the privilege, and retreat to a back-office where you can be alone, in quantitative bliss, in a vacuum of ceteris paribus and plausible deniability.  I feel reasonably sure you've missed the point...and certainly shouldn't have highlighted that by shoveling thought matter into the world.  

    Good grief.However, personal favorite: "(L)ead them strong as steel."  Is that from Rocky IV?

  • McD

     You must be the exact kind of CEO that Scott is speaking about.  A controlling dictator that thinks he/she knows more than the experts that were hired.  Hopefully you are not 'leading' any one!

  • Milko Medic

     I agree with the opinion of delivering initiative and
    freedom of maneuver to employees. However, depending on the employee´s idiosyncrasies,
    the leader must stay close enough to listen and distant to lead them strong as
    steel, if is necessary. Even though syndicates are a right of workers, these organization
    doesn´t appears when working conditions, offered a rational and proportional compensation
    between the people´s effort and company´s productivity, any human resource
    manager knows that and it´s his duty to advise before any hint of labor

    Worker´s empathy is achieved through a good working
    environment, good working facilities and an adequate support in terms of
    benefits for them.

    Cooperation between
    the leader and workers is a quality that should be in constant exercise. Mutual
    trust between them tends to a better understanding and empathy with the aims to
    be achieved