by Bob Lewis

The New Motivation: Does it Replace the Old?

Oct 12, 2010
IT Leadership

How do you motivate employees? That depends what you want them to do.

 How do you motivate employees? That depends what you want them to do.

ManagementSpeak: That’s good that we know how we can keep you happy.

Translation: We’ve already decided to do this our way.

KJR Club member C. Myron Ware kept us happy by translating happiness his way.

 One of the most powerful formulations in the persuasion arsenal is, “I used to think x. Then I learned about y and it completely changed my mind.”

In that vein …

I used to think business leaders had five primary motivators at their disposal. Then I saw Dan Pink’s video on the subject (see “Why small is beautiful,” KJR 10/4/2010).

While it didn’t completely change my mind, it did cause me to seriously re-think the subject.


A quick review: Marketers recognize five “primary motivators” they can use to push your buttons and pull your levers in order to induce you to buy what they’re selling: Fear, greed, guilt, the need for approval, and exclusivity.

If marketers can use them to motivate buying behavior, business leaders should be able to use them to motivate on-the-job performance, or so my logic went (see “The best and worst motivator,” KJR 10/6/1997 plus the next three columns).

Leader use differs from marketer use in an important respect: Marketers have one goal — to make the cash register go ching! For business leaders, motivation isn’t such a one-dimensional affair.

Fear, for example, does an excellent job of providing energy and a sense of urgency. It also makes people stupid — a significant drawback (if you’re a business leader; arguably it’s an advantage if you’re a marketer).

If what you need is hard work, fear is a useful tool. For creativity, thorough analysis, careful and balanced research, or some other version of intelligence, fear is the worst motivator you can use.

In my old way of thinking, the need for approval was the workhorse motivator. It costs nothing, and encourages the best work. So long as it’s specific and based on high standards (so it means something) it has no serious drawbacks.

In my old way of thinking, appealing to greed had limited value for business leaders. One disadvantage is habituation — receipt of a bonus quickly shifts from being appreciated to being an entitlement, so bonuses have to escalate to retain their motivational power.

A second: When a business leader dangles a carrot in front of an employee to encourage strong performance, he/she has redefined the leader/employee relationship to the one between a farmer and a donkey. If you think you’ve hired donkeys to work for you, fire yourself for doing such a bad job of hiring.

That was my old way of thinking. Pink’s video introduced me to a new vocabulary: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Put them together and I’m pretty sure they equal what I’ve called “achievement” — the desire to contribute something important to the world.

Achievement requires autonomy because without it employees don’t own their successes. It requires mastery because without that, employees won’t be capable of achievement. And it requires purpose because without purpose employees won’t be in a position to achieve anything important.

In our leadership seminars we include achievement as an important motivator — one you can appeal to in your best employees, and look for as an internally-driven motivator in every candidate you interview for open positions.

I hadn’t thought of it as being anywhere near as universal as the Big Five, and beyond hiring for it and creating an environment that doesn’t stifle it, I hadn’t figured it was anywhere near universal enough to rival them, no matter how desirable it is.

Here’s the new view:

The need for approval is still your workhorse. Achievement without approval feels, for all but the most inner-directed souls, hollow. For most of us, when we accomplish something important we want others to notice it.

We’ve already talked about fear. It makes people energetic but stupid.

Greed is even worse than I’d thought, actively damaging cognitive performance in addition to its other undesirable characteristics. My guess: When money is the motivator, fear of failing to earn it lurks nearby, explaining why greed damages cognitive performance.

Exclusivity? It’s as useful and as dangerous as when I first wrote about it. “The few, the proud, the Marines,” is highly motivating … if you’re a Marine. That’s the upside. The downside is what it tells the rest of the armed forces you think of them: Quite a lot less.

Guilt turns adults into children. Don’t use it.

What’s changed? The emphasis. Many, and maybe even most employees do have a strong desire to achieve. It’s widespread among employees, and appears to be a cross-cultural trait.

Create an environment that encourages achievement, recognize it when it shows up (taking advantage of the need for approval) and you’ll be amazed at how often you’ll see it in action.

Bob Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, a consultancy focused on IT organizational effectiveness, business/IT integration, and helping organizations become more adept at designed, planned change.