10 Myths about Motivating People… and the Real Truth

How can managers improve their ability to motivate performance?

Spend enough time in meetings or the executive lunchroom, and you’re destined to hear your fair share of managers’ complaints about their employees. But as these leaders vent their frustrations, they’re actually looking in the wrong direction.

If employees lack motivation, don’t be too quick to blame them. Managers and organizational practices are often the problem’s source.

In The Truth about Managing People (FT Press, 2007), Stephen P. Robbins, PhD, examines 10 common myths about motivation. As Robbins points out, traditional workplace incentives and disincentives function as cues for employee decision-making:

  • “Do ____, and you’ll get a bonus.”
  • “Don’t do ____, or you’ll get fired.”

This approach discourages employees from examining the reasons why a task may or may not make sense.

Myth #1: People simply lack the motivation to work.

If you believe this myth, think about three things that may be going on in your employees’ minds. Ask yourself:

  1. Do your employees believe their maximum efforts will be recognized in performance appraisals?

For many employees, the response is a resounding “no.” If they think their best efforts will yield only a mediocre review, they will suffer from low motivation.

2.    Do employees believe a good performance appraisal will lead to organizational rewards?

When pay is allocated on seniority or special relationships, employees perceive the performance-reward relationship to be weak and demotivating.

3.  Are the rewards that employees receive the ones they want?

Some people want promotions, others desire pay, and still others seek more interesting assignments. When rewards aren’t tailored to employees’ specific wants and motivating drives, then incentives are sub-optimized.

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Managers are asked to consider these important concepts:

  • Myth #2: Happy workers are productive workers.
  • Myth #3: Tell employees to do their best, and let them find their own path.
  • Myth #4: People want to set their own goals.
  • Myth #5: Happiness leads to “flow” experiences
  • Myth #6: Feedback needs to address personal qualities.
  • Myth #7: Reward behaviors that indicate high performance.
  • Myth #8: Reward absolute results.
  • Myth #9: Low-skilled workers receive pay and benefits commensurate with their value.
  • Myth #10: You can systematically apply motivation strategies to produce high performance.

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