Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Makes Us Do What We Do?

Today's question concerns motivation. What motivates us to do what we do? What is the best way to motivate others to do what you want them to do or even to do what they want to do?

Therapy and coaching, as well as management and public policy, are directly involved with the question of motivation.

A therapist might show you that you are choosing to date the wrong people because you were traumatized in childhood. Whatever interest you might have in choosing a suitable mate is being overridden by the aftershocks of trauma.

You are choosing the wrong people because you need to relive the trauma in order to get it right this time, or because, as a victim, you do not feel worthy of a good relationship. Another therapist might say that you are self-destructive or that you are addicted to pain.

Therapy wants you to understand why you are getting things wrong; it wants you to understand your motivation. It assumes that once you understand why you are getting things wrong, you will start getting things right.

In some ways, coaching begins where therapy leaves off. Coaching is about how you can go about getting things right. In principle, it does not ask why you were getting things wrong, because it does not believe that your errors were necessarily an expression of bad motives.

Sometimes people freely choose a course of action that is wrong for them and for others because they have made a mistake. They have chosen freely and chosen wrongly. It happens.

Discovering an antecedent does not change the decision and does not free you to make a good decision in the future. Especially when it seems to be telling you that you did not act freely in the first place.

We can spend a lot of time arguing about this, but I would suggest that therapy has offered us a somewhat skewed version of the problem. In business, as in much of everyday life, the more important issue is: how do you motivate other people?

How does a manger get the best and the most out of his staff? So asks Steve Tobak in an article I was reading this morning. Link here.

Tobak does not begin with an isolated individual making poor choices. He begins with a group of individuals, your staff, that is doing poor work because it is unmotivated. This means that your staff does not much care about what it is doing; it does not care about doing a great job; it does not care what is best for the company; it has become a band of slackers.

Only, it is your band of slackers.

Tobak says that if that is what your office looks like, then your staff is being poorly managed. If the office environment is chaotic, then you can change the situation by improving your management technique.

Not always, Tobak makes clear. Not for all people, he says. But for most of the people most of the time. You want and need to have your office run efficiently. For that to happen everyone has to be motivated. Whether or not this is the case depends on you, their manager.

The same applies to family situations, to relationships, and to any situation where your job is to influence someone else to do something, and to like doing it.

In truth, you cannot know how to motivate yourself if you do not know how to motivate other people.

How do you motivate other people, and what does it tell us about human motivation in general?

First, as every book on executive management states, a good manager sets a good example. If you want people to work hard, they have to see you working hard. If you want them to be dedicated to their job, you must be dedicated to yours. If you expect them to be civil and decorous, you must begin by being civil and decorous.

This means that you would not want to prescribe rules for the staff that you are not going to be following yourself.

If you constantly get to work late, you cannot impose a rule that requires everyone else to get to work early. But if you get to work early yourself, you do not have to impose a rule that requires everyone else to do the same.

Anyone who abuses the privilege will need to be warned and perhaps even excused from his job.

So, if you ask why you are going out of your way to behave well, your motivation is that you want to see the same thing manifesting itself in your office.

Next, a good manager defines everyone's job clearly. Each staff member must know what his responsibilities are, what goals he is expected to meet, and how his work contributes to the greater good of the company.

A good manager allows each employee to determine how he goes about achieving goals. He motivates people by allowing them some latitude to determine the way they do their work. 

A good manager offers guidance and support and encouragement. He does not criticize and place blame.

As Tobak says, and as many other consultants have explained, a good manager shares the credit when things go well and takes the blame when things go wrong.

This advice makes certain basic assumptions about motivation. It grants people a full measure of freedom and assumes that a properly managed staff will most often make the right decisions. It does not motivate by either carrots or sticks.

It does not assume that people are inclined to be irrational and emotional and impulsive that thus that they must be strictly controlled and regulated.

By now I hope you can see that this slightly dry discussion of motivation is at the heart of our current political debates.

When the financial crisis hit two years ago, many psychologists and behavioral economists concluded that the housing and mortgage busts had resulted from a fundamental human tendency to sin. We are a bunch of greedy and impulsive characters, motivated only by our desire to get rich, regardless of what happens to anyone else. This uncontrolled and unregulated greed caused the financial crisis.

Those who believed that irrational impulses and emotional overreaction were the problem were convinced that regulation and government constraints were the solution.

If you believe that you cannot trust people to do the right thing, you will feel bound to force them to do it, whether by threat or nudge or bribes.  Similarly, you will hold that they need threats and hudges and bribes to prevent them from doing what they really, really want to do... the wrong thing.

This theory holds that, left to their own devices, human beings are ravenous, rapacious creatures who cannot be trusted. Most especially, they cannot be trusted to exercise freedom and rational judgment.

Of course, the counterargument said that the housing bubble and the mortgage crisis occurred when the government got directly involved in the housing and mortgage markets.

Banks that are left to their own devices tend toward prudence. Banks that are forced by the government to do what the government thinks is the right thing tend to throw prudence under the proverbial bus.

The grand theoretical issue is not as simple as it seems. We might ask whether human beings are irrational seekers of excess, naturally prone to error and depravity, or whether they are rational seekers of what is best for themselves and their communities, motivated by a wish to be virtuous members of a virtuous community.

You can probably guess that I am going to side with the latter. But that still leaves us with a question, one that makes the issue more complicated.

If I want to deny that human beings are fundamentally depraved, and thus in serious need of constraint and control, then how does it happen that rational creatures become prey to irrational emotions like greed?

And this feels more like a philosophical issue than a question for behavioral economics?

How can you tell whether human beings merely have a potential for excess or whether their will toward depraved and irrational behavior is their true nature?

Perhaps the only way to solve it is to create a set of practices that will test each theory and see which one motivates people better.

If Tobak and the management consultants are right about the best way to motivate your staff then my view would seem to be correct. If those who believe that we need to submit to the most strict behavioral controls, lest we become consumed by greed and even lust, are right, then we should embrace the approach that has been motivating the current administration.


The Ghost said...

care must be taken when using the "by example" motivational method. I don't actually consider it a form of motivation, I think of it as the cover charge a manager must pay to have enough respect to be allowed to motivate the troops.
In the end each team member will have multiple motivation hot buttons you can push but it never works out that one size fits all.
Yes, more money seems to be a universal motivator but it must be used sparingly.

David Foster said...

"Next, a good manager defines everyone's job clearly" reality, though, there will always be a certain amount of white space in between jobs, and things that need doing--sometimes need doing urgently--where responsibilities are overlapping and/or ambiguous. If you are a good leader, you will establish a culture in which clear job definitions are *not* an excuse for buck-passing and not-my-job-itis. As a CEO recently said, when there's a fire, you don't want some guy saying "Well, my job is supposed to be painting fire hydrants, not putting out fires."

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Good One

I especially appreciate the link to Tobak's articles.

I find myself facing a challenge to my 'management' skills.

I've been elected the 'secretary' to a state garden club organization that is hemorrhaging clubs. And I've got to stop the losses. you may have former 'management' techniques worked pretty good, retiring as a lieutenant colonel of infantry. However, those skills involved the judicious use of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And even though the former president of the group is married to a former 'boss' of mine, when I was the principle officer for a heavy brigade's logistics....I doubt if I can use the UCMJ HERE to any good effect.

Gone to have to learn how to 'herd cats'. And some of them keep the claws and fangs well honed.


[Life isn't one thing after another. It's the same darn thing over and over again.]

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: The Ghost
RE: Heh

care must be taken when using the "by example" motivational method. I don't actually consider it a form of motivation, I think of it as the cover charge a manager must pay to have enough respect to be allowed to motivate the troops. -- The Ghost

I can identify with that.

Case in Point #1: As a young cadet [albeit a former sergeant in the 82d], I was tasked to get a bunch of tank ammo off of stake and platform trailers for a gunnery shoot. I had a detail of national guardsmen to assist.

So the truck pulled up, dropped its trailer and pulled away. I looked at the detail and said, "Okay. Let's get to it." There was a murmur from the group, looking at this 'character' telling them what to do, wearing ROTC insignia.

I didn't bother arguing the point, I just climbed up on the truck and started throwing ammo cases at them.

They got the message and got to work.

Case in Point #2: 82d Alerted to Go to Kenya

So I was throwing a steak on the grill and the phone rang.

The voice on the other end said, "This is the battalion SDO. YOUR PRESENCE IS REQUIRED." The last sentence is code phrase for 'Get your a-- in here. We're moving out.'

Thinking it was an exercise alert, I said, "I'm on detached duty."

The reply was, "Doesn't matter. This is REAL WORLD."

So I kissed my [ex]wife good-bye and hit the door at the same time my neighbor, and fellow company XO, in base-housing came out HIS door.

At any rate, we were bound for Kenya to rescue American nationals from the invading Cuban-backed Angolans.

During the next 48 hours, there were all kinds of 'interesting' events. Probably the most disappointed was the report of an XVIII Airborne Corps general officer 'leading by example', loading a 2 1/2 ton truck by himself.

One would think that general officers had better thinks to do.


[No plan survives contact with reality.]

Proud Hindu said...

Off topic but couldn't find the blogs that apply. Anyway, here's more reason to be suspect of the Ground Zero Mosque. The damned CIA is involved!

Women Executive Coaching said...

This article explores why clarifying values and using them to guide decision making can be a stressful process, especially for professional women who are also mothers. It also helps women identify how to find an executive coach who can best support them.

Women Executive Coaching

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Great post. I manage executive coaching programs in Rhode Island and throughout all of New England. I'd like to mention that if you're interested in learning more about effective communications for executives please check out our website. We have some wonderful free resources available for all those interested in the topic.