Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Secrets to Motivating People

The most difficult psychological problem is not gaining insights and self-awareness, but learning how to motivate others.

To the extent that Freud influenced therapy, the problem of motivating others has been ignored. In Freud's solipsistic universe, the first order of business was showing each individual that he was being motivated by dark inner forces. He classified the effort to motivate others under the category of suggestion... an unwarranted intrusion into another person's autonomy.

Yet, if you get beyond a tendency to chastise yourself for your bad motives, and start working with problems that are intrinsic to coaching, managing, and leading, you will want to know how to motivate others.

Keep in mind Dwight Eisenhower's definition of leadership: "Leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want done because he wants to do it."

Most people would agree with this idea. Precious few know how to do it.

Those who believe that they know how to lead often believe that you lead and manage people when you tell them what to do. If something goes wrong  you need merely tell them that they have made a mistake.

And yet, criticizing someone's faults rarely motivates him to do better.

It doesn't work because criticism is demoralizing. A person demoralized, whether it is your wife, your child, or your assistant, will start feeling incompetent. And someone who is feeling incompetent will not feel sufficiently competent to be able to affect the positive changes that are needed.

The rule applies whether we are talking about your performance as an auditor or as a housekeeper or as a lover.

When we want to find good examples of people motivating others, we go to the world of business. There we can most easily measure the results.

If you want to know how well you are motivating your staff, look at their performance. If they are performing poorly, if their work is slipshod, if their attitude and commitment are poor, then clearly you are doing something wrong.

According to studies cited by Heidi Grant Halvorson, it's all about the way you give your staff feedback. And that involves the way you articulate things, the way you address them, and the kinds of words you choose.

As Halvorson and many others have said, if you want to be a better manager of people you should focus on the results you want to produce, not the persona you believe you should adopt. Link here.

When things go wrong, when an employee has screwed up, Halvorson recommends that a good manager be straightforward and truthful, and not be too worried about hurting the person's feelings.

She says that employees need to know what they are getting wrong, because otherwise they cannot improve.

I have, however, encountered more than a few people who believe that they are obliged to inform their employees and family members of everything they are getting wrong, because this will help them to improve.

The results are rarely positive. Since criticism tends to demoralize, people who hand out too much of it tend to be demoralized themselves as their best efforts yield poor results. Too often they double down on the criticism: not only are you a bad employee but you aren't even smart enough to take my suggestions for becoming a better one.

So I am going to disagree with Halvorson 's recommendation here.

Clearly, you cannot tell someone that he has done a great job when he hasn't. That kind of lie will make it all the more difficult to manage him. But, you should not be spending your time pointing out his flaws and faults either.

Your goal, if you would like to improve your management technique, is to have your employee figure out for himself that he has made a mistake, and what that mistake was.

You need, in other words, to cultivate an environment where people are encouraged to admit to error and where they know that they will not be penalized for taking responsibility.

A good manager wants an employee to acknowledge his errors. Someone who knows that he messed up and is willing to admit to it is also going to be more motivated to correct it.

If your employee insists that he has done nothing wrong, and if things have gotten to the point where you have to tell him the unvarnished truth, then you both have a problem.

If your only recourse is to tell the truth to someone who does not believe he has done anything wrong then you are going to provoke a defensive reaction. People who are defensive are often overwhelmed by a need to defend themselves.

Next, a good manager will help his employee to figure out how to get things right. He will not-- I emphasize-- take a cue from therapy and ask why the person keeps getting things wrong, or whether he has unresolved issues.

Halvorson recommends being specific, not general, about what needs improving. She believes that it is best to begin with bad habits that can most easily be improved. You can recommend that the person should put in more time on his work, that he should try to develop his interpersonal skills, that he should keep in closer communication with his colleagues, that he should return messages promptly, and so on.

It is best to keep it informational, not personal. It is better to recommend new habits than to criticize the person for being inadequate.

Next, Halvorson makes an intriguing suggestion, one that runs counter to the conventional wisdom. She says that a good manager should not praise an employee for having made a good effort, for having given it his best, for having tried very hard... and failed.

She notes, wisely, that when you tell someone that he has done his best but has failed, he is going to think you are saying that failure is his best.

It is better to leave open the possibility for improvement by suggesting that with more effort or better work skills he can improve his performance.

She adds that when things go well, you should not praise your employee for having great natural talent, for having great aptitude for the business, or for being a wonderful person.

She prefers that you praise him for the actions that he took, for the way he organized the project, for the way he implemented the policy. As she puts it: "Praise the actions; not the person."

If you tell someone that he is a natural, he is likely to think that he does not have to work as hard, and that he does not have to be as motivated as someone who has less talent.

As Halvorson adds, if you tell a person he's a natural and he then starts having difficulty with something, he will feel that he does not have the natural talent to succeed at the new task and will be more likely to give up.

This approach to managing people aims at specific habits that can be changed. It tries to inspire confidence while not allowing the person to believe that he can do no wrong.

It does not imagine that there are root causes, primal issues, that need to be resolved before the person can improve his functioning.

That is the most intriguing part. Hasn't the therapy business been based in large part on the notion that you must resolve your underlying issues before you can function better in the world? Doesn't it criticize the person, not the actions. Doesn't it assume that the fault lies with the person, not his bad behavior.

In fact, therapists most often consider bad behavior or poor habits to be symptoms of a larger unresolved mental conflict.

Therapy seems to be the inverse of good management technique.  If so, its technique would tend to demotivate people, to demoralize them, to persuade them not to take the small steps that might improve their behavior and mood.

Once you are sufficiently demotivated and demoralized, then you are more likely to remain in therapy forever. In Freud's words treatment will become interminable.


The Ghost said...

as a Naval officer I always tried (not always successfully) to curse at the result and not at the person. My goal was to motivate the person to join me in focusing first on the bad result and then they would be motivated to look for a solution even if that solution meant they would have to face their own errors ...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for a very helpful guideline, drawn from practical experience.

I'm not surprised that the military would excel at this form of leadership.

I also appreciate your telling people that this advice is very difficult to follow in practice.

Proud Hindu said...

Any tips for overcoming procrastination? I know several people who's lifes have been sabotaged by it.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I wrote a little about procrastination in this post:

Interestingly, behavioral economist Dan Ariely lists it as the first of the habits of highly ineffective people.

I will surely have more to say about it in the future.

Proud Hindu said...

I'm becoming convinced that procrastination in severe cases is either genetic or some sort of chemical inbalance.

Unknown said...

Really great post, thanks for sharing your experiences. I work in executive coaching in Boston and my staff spends a lot of time working with executives. It can often be very difficult to motivate them, however, once you break through and can show them results the level of interest and desire to improve grows!