As business people, we invest a lot of time thinking about motivation. How do we get our employees to work more efficiently, effectively, and productively? Since the dawn of commerce, the favorite solution to a motivation problem has been to throw money at it. The most obvious examples of this are salespeople who work for a sales commission, but there are lots of other places in business where the carrot-and-stick (if you do this, I’ll pay you that) is the preferred method of motivation. We have bonuses, profit sharing, stock options, or the promise of a big hike in salary, to name a few. Sometimes these sorts of monetary motivators work, but more often, they don’t . . . at least, they don’t work to the extent we think they should. They may move the needle on the motivation meter a bit, but not nearly as much as we hoped. So how can this be? It’s absurd! How can people fail to be motivated in the face of an opportunity to make more money? For more on this puzzling phenomenon, and for a few thoughts on other approaches to motivation, please continue reading below.
Motivation is all about passion. Discover what people are passionate about and you’ll understand what motivates them.
In business, money seems to be the default motivator. When we want someone to do something, or we want someone to do more of something, or we want someone to do something better, we come up with a scheme to funnel money their way if they do what we want done. Unfortunately, money is not the universal motivator we sometimes think it is. We all need money to live and to support the lifestyle we want for ourselves, but money is not necessarily what propels us out of bed every day.
- Consider Tiger Woods and his astounding come-from-behind victory at the 2019 Masters Golf Tournament. If he could pull it off, he’d be getting a winner’s check for over $2 million. But as he approached the 18th green with a 2-stroke lead, a big payday was probably the farthest thing from his mind. He wasn’t in it for the money. He was in it for the recognition . . . recognition that he had overcome enormous physical and personal adversity, had clawed his way back from the slag heap of has-been golfers, and rejoined the ranks of the most elite golfers on the planet. As proof, he wanted to win his 5th green jacket, and he wanted to do it in front of his friends and family. Money really didn’t even enter into the equation (although we’re sure he didn’t turn the check down).
- Consider mountaineers. For the most part, nobody is paying them to risk their lives climbing Mt. Everest. In fact, it costs them a fortune to mount an expedition for the privilege of enduring oxygen deprivation and horrific weather conditions. It’s all about the challenge, not the money.
- There’s a television commercial that has been running recently showing an off-road SUV crossing streams and climbing rocky mountain trails, and showing the SUV’s occupants rock climbing, kayaking, and doing other rugged, outdoorsy things. The announcer observes that animals do difficult, even dangerous things, because they must to survive. Only humans do difficult, even dangerous things, because they think it’s fun.
- While a few professional runners are in it for the money, most of the thousands of runners in a marathon are in it to prove (to themselves) that they can finish, or if they’ve run more than one marathon, to beat their own best time, but there is no monetary reward . . . only psychic benefits.
- Doctors Without Borders donate time away from their lucrative medical practices, even risk their lives, to help people who desperately need medical care but have no access to it. Church goers will spend their summer vacation on “mission” trips to help those in need. And countless charities depend upon unpaid volunteers to carry out their charitable work.
The point is, people can be motivated to do all sorts of extraordinary things, even heroic things in which financial gain plays no role whatsoever. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that motivation is a very personal, individualistic sort of thing. What motivates you may not motivate me, and what motivates a third person may not motivate either one of us. So in the end, you can’t motivate people . . . that is, you can’t dictate what they need to be passionate about. They carry their own innate motivation within themselves . . . in fact, they probably arrived from the factory fully equipped with motivation. However, you can help them to discover the passions that truly motivate them, help them to focus on those passions, and help them develop those passions into tools they can use in both their personal and professional lives.
Some more bad news. Helping people to discover the real motivating factors in their lives is tough, one-on-one mentoring work, and it won’t come easily. It will require that you build real, meaningful relationships. People don’t like to be manipulated, and they won’t willingly tell you what gets their juices flowing unless they trust that you won’t use that knowledge as a tool to manipulate them. Hence the need to build a trusting relationship. Still, if you end up with well-motivated employees who are passionate about what they do and who are willing to harness those passions to help the company achieve its goals, that’s a pretty good deal, isn’t it?
So the next time you’re considering some sort of incentive program to motivate your people, resist the knee-jerk urge of a cash offer. You may still have to offer some sort of financial prize because people expect that in business. But go a little deeper and consider if there may be a way to tap into something your people are truly passionate about. If you’re able to do that, you’ll get a lot more than mere compliance . . . you’ll get the energy and enthusiasm that comes with genuine commitment.