Learning to Motivate Others

All organisations aim to create the conditions through which their employees can give of their best. Yet working out the best way to motivate performance is a challenge we see many constantly struggle with. So, what are the options when it comes to creating organisations which encourage a high performance culture?

Let’s look at what happens when the primary focus is on rewarding staff.

We recently worked with a global company which some months ago decided that it needed to significantly improve its capacity to innovate - to come up with fresh new ideas, products and services. The senior team decided to create a competition and award a prize for the best new product ideas.  Initially, at least, the potential of the prize created a buzz and raised the energy levels across a number of teams. Groups began to form and new ideas rapidly emerged. After the initial excitement had died down, however, the senior team noticed that teams were working in silos, that cross company collaboration was poor and that although there was an opportunity for all staff to comment on others’ ideas (and to build on them), in practice there was little input or sense of wider collaboration. The company completed the first round of the competition but pulled the initiative once the initial phase was completed.

We have seen this cycle many times over the 35 years we have been working with organisations. Using rewards to stimulate change may start off well, but over the medium term those rewards seem to fail to maintain the initial momentum for change. Why is that?

In simple terms, it is because extrinsic value has been placed on the idea generation outcome – the prize – and this has replaced the intrinsic value of the idea generation process and outcome itself. Once that prize is claimed, or if it starts to look inaccessible, then the extrinsic value is lost and there is no intrinsic value to replace it.

Any organisation that preferences extrinsic motivators over intrinsic ones creates conditions where it will have to continuously increase and improve extrinsic rewards in order to maintain their initial effect. They and their staff become addicted to receiving the benefits of such rewards and work becoma more instrumentalised - a means to a separate end.

Designing such rewards structures and processes can also have a range of implications for the way in which an organisation learns. When motivation relies on rewards, it is not only work that becomes instrumentalised, but learning too. When this happens learning becomes viewed merely as a tool that can or cannot help achieve the bonus or the prize. It is stripped of its intrinsic value and effectively stops happening. Over the years we have worked with many companies whose previous practice with training programmes has been quite similar a decline in scale and impact because learning was only seen as a route to direct reward (promotion, bonus, status) rather than the intrinsic value of personal development and growth. We also know that if an organisation’s people are not learning then the organisation isn’t really growing, not in any real sense.

So, what’s the solution?

If we want to motivate our people, encourage and support them to innovate, to learn and to grow then we need to understand how to motivate them and reinforce positive behaviours; we need to work on intrinsic motivators not external ones.

Intrinsic motivators stem from an internal desire to act (rather than driven by external factors) and are hugely important in productivity and engagement.

Dan Pink discusses motivation in his popular book, Drive. Here he talks about three levers that support and encourage intrinsic motivation. These are purpose, autonomy and mastery. (See our recent review of Pink’s book here). Hertzberg’s Motivation to Work is one of the key works on motivation and also worth a read. So much research on motivation points to the central importance of meaning in work, a sense of fulfillment in being able to make a positive contribution and a capacity to learn and to grow.

At Impact we work hard at being a great place to work, to be a good company. We know that tapping the intrinsic motivation of all of our staff is central to getting the best out of everyone. It isn’t easy. But without the energy, commitment and talent of our people and their capacity to work together, across specialisms, across teams and silos, then we haven’t really got a business or a future.

Ultimately what we have learned is this; that motivating staff requires real and deep clarity of organisational purpose, trusting them, giving them responsibility and helping them to learn and to grow personally and professionally. This approach to motivation is very unlikely, in our opinion, to be successfully or sustainably replaced by external rewards, no matter how big the prize fund is.

Grahame Broadbelt is Impact's Global Head of Communication and R&D.