Performance Management Issues: Motivation By Incentives

herding catsSometimes I get a little tired of listening to the latest management consultant fads. One that annoys me considerably is the idea that motivating behavior by incentives is somehow grubby and meant only for lower level workers. That more sophisticated employees need to have more trust, freedom, flexibility and recognition. That motivating them is much more complicated.

Oh bosh. First of all, trust, freedom, flexibility and recognition are incentives. And they’re given to employees who’ve shown they deserve them. And they’re not necessarily the highest level employees. Sometimes they’re the janitors.

Motivation by incentive (reward) — is the most common form of motivation in history. No matter how many motivation theories we try to wrap our brains around, the fact remains that rewards get people to do things. And always have.

The right rewards at the right times even get people to do things they’d prefer not to do.

You’ve probably read about how complicated motivation can be. About how rewards stop working after a certain point. And that’s true. Every individual has an “enough” line. A point where no practical reward is enough to get him to do what you want him to do.

But for most practical purposes, for most tasks, for most people, you will do quite well in finding incentives that get folks to do what you want. Or to get yourself to do what you want, need or should.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory is often cited as a reason that the old carrot and stick system doesn’t work once someone achieves a certain level of development. We’re often told that incentives are good when we’re focused on basic needs at the bottom of the hierarchy but that motivation becomes more complicated as lower needs are satisfied. Supposedly we won’t work for the same incentives, but require more freedom of choice in tasks for self-actualization.

That is a misunderstanding of Maslow’s very helpful instrument. We don’t stop having to satisfy our basic needs — ever. And even when we are working hard to survive, we still want to be moral beings leading lives of meaning and purpose. For adults, all the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy are in play, to different degrees, all the time.

That means that no matter how sophisticated you are, no matter how much money you have, no matter how many friends, family members or supporters you have, no matter how creative and accomplished you are — you still have plenty of needs to be met and you still respond to incentives and disincentives. (Rewards and punishments.)

So, while — as the latest tribe of management consultants tell you — money isn’t the only incentive that people need to work well, it’s still right up there at the top level. As are recognition, freedom, flexibility and creativity.

Also remember, when employees are failing in their work performance, there are numberless possible outside causes. Like family relationships or personal health.

Continue to think in terms of incentives. Continue to call them incentives or rewards. You don’t have to learn motivational psychology. All the old stuff still works. And when any particular incentive isn’t working for an employee you want to keep, you might just want to actually ask what’s going on. Maybe it’s something you can help with by giving different rewards. Maybe it’s something you can’t help with because it has nothing to do with you or his work.

Investigate, discuss, determine the problem. Just like you do with other management problems. And then, if it’s something in your power to deal with, create the proper incentive.