Seagull on post near boating marinaManaging motivation: an opportunity and a challenge

It is one thing to understand the nature and dynamics of motivation and quite another to apply that understanding as a manager. It is the difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that” as Gilbert Ryle expressed it and it is also the key message of the books “The knowing-doing gap” or “Execution: the discipline of getting things done”. Your primary responsibility as the manager is to create the environment within which people can motivate themselves. In this respect it is more akin to a facilitator than as a controller. You need to be able to help your unit to connect their work and tap into their more deeply held values from which their motivation will come.

This capability offers significant opportunities to create value with the unit because there is a direct link between motivation in a work context and the qualities of commitment and engagement. Commitment represents the idea of being bound to a particular course of action, and engagement is the idea of being involved and aligned with the objectives of that course of action. Leveraging this understanding yields higher performance and more reliable outcomes but there are several key points to consider:

Compensation isn’t everything

The first point to realise is that compensation isn’t everything. This is an extrinsic factor of motivation and is what Frederick Hertzberg called a “hygiene” factor. It will influence the comparisons people make about reward and effort as well as the level of competence recognition that it implies, however, few people only work for money. This means that people have to be paid fairly, with a level of transparency and consistency if the issues surrounding compensation are to be taken off the table.

Motivation is not about “warm and fuzzy”

The second point is that managing motivation is not about a “warm and fuzzy” accommodation of whatever any individual assumes or expects. The employment relationship is a contingent relationship, not an unconditional one. Employees, including you as the manager, must continue to perform in your job, delivering the results and creating the value that is required and expected. To manage the performance effectively requires a clear insight into the dynamics of motivation and your attitude and enthusiasm for your work is an important signal to those who work with you. You also need to think carefully about how the unit operates and who carries influence in order to make sure that they are active and positive contributors to the process.

Everyone wants to be valued and feel like their work matters

The third point is that everyone wants to be valued and feel like their work matters. As the manager, what you say and do really matters and the higher you are in an organisation the more important it becomes. Effective management at these high levels requires a strong sense of leadership and that means it should never be a competition about who knows the most. You need to create the environment in which your unit members can express opinions and ideas, subject to careful questioning of course, but also in a respectful and courteous way. Managing motivation is as much about how you treat people as it is about what you know and your behaviour is the only lens that people have.

Motivation isn’t just about one psychological need over everything else

The fourth point is that it isn’t just about one psychological need over everything else. Well being occurs where there is a balance between them so requesting and expecting autonomy can only be extended when competence and relatedness are appropriately established. Allowing someone to have autonomy without these balancing elements is a recipe for failure and why “employee empowerment” fails fairly quickly when applied without supporting actions.

Recognition and reward are an important way of building motivation

The fifth point is that recognition and reward are an important way of building motivation and getting the best out of people. Compensation is important but discretionary awards have a way of acknowledging competence, building relatedness and internalising organisational priorities. This is not about handing out trinkets of no value but genuinely acknowledging what people are doing and have done to deliver the results and create the value that matters and you should also actively monitor what works with whom and what doesn’t.

Some practical suggestions include:

  • What you say to people in team meetings, emails, newsletters and acknowledge through awards is a form of public recognition that matters to people. Be prepared to say thankyou; well done; how can I help? Sometimes the simplest acknowledgement can be the most valued!
  • Informal awards directly to the person such as an old IBM offering of ‘Dinners for Two’, gift cards, movie tickets or even letters of commendation can all acknowledge an individual’s contribution and acknowledge their contributions.
  • Opportunities to participate in challenging projects, task forces, or specific client situations all play a part in developing the motivational base of your unit members.

These things are relatively easy to implement and less expensive than the typical compensation initiatives or commitments to job security in an uncertain business environment, recognising that there will be some variability and they might vary from person to person.

There are challenges

The primary challenges involve modifying the traditional approaches to motivation and knowing that the ideal world doesn’t exist.  On the first point, these have typically been managed through incentive programs that involve compensation and other rewards being tied to specific performance outcomes with the assumption that everyone is motivated by the same things in the same way. While there is a clear link between compensation and performance as demonstrated in both the psychological and economic research, we are learning that the programmed approach can be very limited in duration, value and impact. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water but likewise don’t assume that you have addressed motivation because you have an incentive program and variable compensation in place. The book “Crisis in the Enterprise” draws attention to the fact that over 50% of sales people fail to meet their goals year in and year out. The sales job represents the bedrock of variable compensation and incentives and yet the failure rates are high.

On the second point, there will be some people who work in your unit whose level of self-motivation is low or not where you need it. For some you will have a performance management problem that needs to be addressed and for others it will require a higher level of involvement and regulation as you seek to encourage a greater willingness to contribute and greater self direction.

All of this is management and management is ultimately about people, not logistics.

It is clear that the carrot and the stick practices of the past no longer work for 21st century work and workers, the importance of this point being that low levels of motivation in terms of commitment and engagement introduce complementary higher levels of regulation and management overhead. This tends to result in compliance but not increased engagement. It is worth looking back at and earlier post Working with a MicroManager post to realise that a lot of this type of controlling behaviour creates an increased level of regulation that results in the erosion of commitment, motivation and engagement.

Rather than taking this approach, a more productive route to success is the alignment and design of jobs that are directly contributing to the success of the organisation as well as that of the individual doing the work, giving greater autonomy to perform and accountability to deliver results. They must be competent and you as the manager must be genuinely interested in their engagement. One of the key factors that engages people with their work is that their work matters and is meaningful both to the organisation and to them as individuals. That is why management is a difficult job and why it requires diligence and attention.

Managing motivation day to day

There are some things you can’t control, but as an effective manager you are responsible to understand motivation and how your unit can produce the results it needs to produce. This requires effort on your part and starting with yourself, you can assess your own motivation, commitment and engagement in terms of autonomy, competence and relatedness by seriously reflecting on these questions:

  • Why do you work?
  • Does your work matter?
  • Who decides how you work?
  • Who benefits from your work?
  • What is a job well done?
  • How is that sense of a job well done communicated?
  • Who decides if you are performing at an appropriate level?
  • What is the nature of your relationship with these evaluators?
  • What criteria do they use for their evaluation?

Motivation Matters for Managers

Now I know that the ideal work environment doesn’t exist and these questions may cause some personal angst, but they are, nonetheless, important to consider if you want to understand your own motivational state. They are even more important if, as a manager, you are going to set key performance targets for people to achieve, expecting that they will all behave constructively in response to their targets, incentives and rewards. People respond differently to these extrinsically framed factors and in some instances, it can actually hinder performance for everything other than the most structured and basic tasks.

You can have all the knowledge and skills in the world but if there is no motivation to use them effectively in the business context, they are of no avail. You can have little knowledge and few skills but do have the motivation to acquire them and use them, returning significant value.

Managing motivation, to the extent that it is possible, is tightly coupled with performance management but I don’t believe that you can manage performance effectively if you don’t understand motivation and engage with the human fundamentals that it entails. Managers don’t motivate people. Motivation extends to every area of life and no-one turns up to work without it. They are already motivated but the question is: to do what? In the next post on managing performance we will see how this understanding can be integrated into building the commitment and engagement of your unit.


Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2000). The knowing-doing gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

Bossidy, L., Charan, R., & Burck, C. (2002). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York: Crown Business

D Govan, DeMaria Studio and R DeMaria. (2009). Crisis in the Enterprise. G2 Strategic Advisory Services

Ryle, G. (1945). Knowing How and Knowing That: The Presidential Address. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society New Series, Vol. 46 (1945 – 1946), pp. 1-16