Leadership of Motivation
Probably one of the most erroneous notions sold to business leadership today is the idea that incentives are the best medicine for improving low productivity and bottom line return. Incentives are those experiences we have that generate in us the fear of punishment or the expectation of reward, thereby inciting us to action or effort. For the last forty years increasingly, refinements and enhancements have been made to incentive programs with the belief that incentives are the foundation of motivation. In fact it is so prevalent that incentives have become the cornerstone of a culture themselves, an incentive culture so to speak.
The Global Dream: A Systematic Erosion
Many businesses today are seeking to move toward becoming self reliant organizations where individuals and teams can be counted upon to use their own judgment. What is “right” for the whole of the business is to be the guide for behavior of employees. “Full business partners” implies a workforce that is continuously learning, developing, and taking on bigger and riskier challenges in service of the business. Companies which have workforces which routinely behave this way are unbeatable from a competitive standpoint. Business leadership wants the workforce, in short, to have the same level of commitment and value for the business, its resources, and its future, as though the workers owned the business themselves.
As a society, we want our young people to grow up to be contributing and forthright citizens who represent the stalwart, honest, and determined nature that is idealized, and maybe romanticized, as a legacy from our forefathers. We want leaders of our communities and nation who care more about the welfare of the whole than their own self-interest or that of a special interest group. We want a society in which uniqueness can be discovered and expressed and in which every person from birth to death is continually learning and developing and contributing this personal evolution toward enabling a better society.
Incentive based cultures are the antithesis of such dreams, not just from poor implementation or design of such programs, but in the scientific, economic and psychological premises from which they are drawn. Alfie Kohn in Harvard Business Review (Sept.-Oct. 1993) points out that we have spent so much of our energy on refining and tinkering with incentive plans that we have forgotten to assess whether incentives are the right approach at all.
Incentive Culture: a Flawed Theory Base
An incentive culture is one that has embedded incentives so deeply in its way of working that people can no longer see any other way of viewing the world and every program and plan has the premises behind creating incentives built into its design. Examples: programs that rate and rank employees against one another, or managers who buy pizzas, hats, or jackets for the workforce for a job well done. It is those who post their “employee of the month” for safety, service, sales, or “whatever” on the bulletin board. It is paying for the pieces of work produced or the achievement of production goals or sharing the “gain” with the employees. And even seeking motivational speakers to inspire people with “a better way”. By now you are probably feeling like a challenge is being made to a way of life. Looking behind these programs provides a better understanding regarding why incentives are giving us something akin to our worst nightmare, instead of the American Dream.
For an incentive culture to be effective, it needs people, by the nature of its approach, to be highly susceptible to the wishes of others, to focus on specific prescribed behaviors to the exclusion of other behaviors, (without necessarily producing any understanding of the implications of such choices to the whole of which they are a part or any secondary negative impacts), to be concerned with direct personal benefit for one’s efforts, and to compete with one’s own colleagues and peers to an end where some win and maybe most others become losers. The culture requires that others determine the merits of our work compared to those of our co-workers and requires working from the assumption that higher organizational levels know the “right” answers in the same way our parents and teachers did.
The development period of the incentive approach to motivation covers about 300 years of evolution and can be found in the tenets of scientific, economic, and psychological thought, much of which has been rejected by modern thinkers as incomplete or misapplied. During its evolution the incentive culture has been woven from the premises of Adam Smith-the Father of Economics, Charles Darwin whose many followers created what has come to be called “Social Darwinism,” John Watson, the founder of Behavioral Psychology and his student B. F. Skinner, and Sir Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and scientist. The core incentive premises might be stated as:
- The essential nature of human beings is one of self interest versus sacrifice for the common good (Adam Smith’s main economic postulate. Lux: 1990)
- Humans are driven by stimulus-response mechanisms without the presence of consciousness or free will with which to override the mechanical choices (John Watson and B.F. Skinner, Watson: 1935)
- Humans are the product of competitive forces with a natural tendency to try to win based on the laws of survival of the fittest, incapable of operating from purpose. (Darwin principles adapted to social settings. Berlin: 1991)
- Humans will seek to imitate that which is offered and rewarded as a role model. (Behavioral Psychology, Watson:1935)
- It is possible and desirable to predict and control nature and therefore men as beings of nature. (Sir Francis Bacon. Berlin: 1991)
Human Nature: Altruistic or Self-Interest? YES!
There has been a long-standing debate about whether humans are at their core really purely interested only in themselves or whether they are altruistic. The intensity of this debate seems to be based on the often-held assumption that things must be one way or the other, with maybe, on some occasions, a compromise. As a result of this dualistic way of resolving philosophical questions we frequently settle for partial answers, which is the case with motivation. Motivation, when viewed non-dualistically and less simplistically, provides a richer source of leadership ideas.
Several Eastern and Western traditions see motivation as a triadic phenomena that can be understood as a developmental process. The three natures move from a lower to higher order, each encompassing the lower. Order here is not meant in a pejorative sense, relating to relative value. Order is the ability to organize thinking about increasingly complex situations and matters. Modern psychology includes non-dualistic systems developed by human behavior scientists, the most well known being Abraham Maslow. In fact Maslow’s theories are frequently used or at least referred to in the same organizations embedded in the incentive culture, without ever noticing the potential for inconsistency. The theoretical constructs of both Maslow’s work and older philosophical traditions, add dimensionality to people and see them as having several levels of needs, motivations, or elements of drive. It is helpful to take these into consideration when observing behavior and when seeking as a leader to understand the potential and the complexity present in the make up of human beings.
In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the three orders of motivation, to see how leadership based in the higher orders works to develop self directed employees and unbeatable business outcomes.