Category Archives: Motivation Skills

The Attractiveness of Work

“What is it that this game has, that is so attractive to your son, that he will go without food, water and sleep, in spite of discouragement from his mom (manager)?” I asked. “Your son has achieved a high level of competence in this video game without the traditional trappings of learning, without the traditional trappings of inducement. Yet he continues to play hard.”

“Well, for one thing, it must be fun, it’s play, not work,” Jamie explained.

“And, as a manager, what can we take from that, when we think about our teams and their behavior?”

“Yes, but work isn’t all that much fun,” Jamie protested. “People don’t like work. They like play, but they don’t like work.”

“Jamie, I have looked at your son playing a video game and it doesn’t look all that different than what some of your people do at work. They both sit at a keyboard, staring at a computer screen. As they touch the keys, things move on the screen.”

“I don’t see your comparison, they are two different things.”

“But if you could see the comparison, what would you see?”

Jamie had to think, but she finally spoke. “In the mind of my son, he is part of something bigger than himself, trying to achieve certain levels in the game. As he makes progress, he gets real-time feedback (automatically), so he can adjust his play. When he makes the level, there is a small electronic celebration on the screen.”
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Leaving Shanghai today, bound for San Francisco. Quick trip around the world in five days.

Didn’t Do It For the Money

The conversation was now personal. We talked about Jamie’s son and his behavior related to a video game. We had established that he never attended a training program, never read a training manual, was discouraged from learning the game by his manager (Jamie, his mom). Furthermore, in spite of all these front-end adverse conditions, he achieved a high level of mastery, in playing the game.

“So, Jamie, you also told me that you did not pay your son a bonus when he achieved certain levels within the game?”

Jamie started with a chuckle, but it quickly turned to an outright laugh. “You clearly don’t know my son. Paying him to play a video game is not part of our family culture. That would be a bit over the top. As his mom (manager), I would have to be crazy. He doesn’t play the game for money.”

“What? Teenagers don’t have expenses?” I asked.

“That’s not the point,” Jamie explained. “He doesn’t play for money.”

“So, what does he play for? What does he get from the game that has caused him to spend hours achieving a high level of competence, without external inducements for his performance?”

“Well, he must be getting some internal reward for it.” Jamie guessed.

“And how would describe that internal reward? What is it?”

“Motivation?”

I nodded. “Yes, motivation, and here is where the conversation gets interesting.”
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First day in Shanghai. This place is very Chinese.

Sacrificing Sleep and Food

“So, what gives?” Jamie asked. “Our company spends a lot of its resources on training, planning, development programs. Why do they always seem to run out of gas? You suggest we are missing something on the back end.”

“When I look at behavior, I think we, as managers, truly miss the boat. We are always looking at the front end of the behavior instead of the back end. And the back end, the consequences of behavior, are much more powerful drivers than the front end.”

“I am not sure what you mean,” Jamie responded.

“Jamie, you have a teenager at home, right?”

“Oh, yeah, somewhere in his room, beneath the glow of some Realm vs Realm computer game, I think there is a teenager in there somewhere.”

“Tell me, how complicated is that video game?”

“Oh, boy, I can’t make heads or tails of it. When I look at that screen, there is so much stuff going on, including multiple chat channels, voice over the Internet, status panels, swords, animals, shields, walking, running, flying, transporting, vaporizing.”

“So, to learn how to play that game, you must have sent your son to an expensive training class?” I asked.

Jamie started to laugh. “Are you kidding? He just sat in there for hours and hours, without eating or sleeping. I don’t know how he learned it, but it wasn’t from a training class.”

“You mean, you didn’t encourage him. You didn’t bring in a motivational speaker. You didn’t make him practice?”

“No way, quite the opposite. We discourage him from playing the game, sometimes we even ground him from playing.”

“So, let me get this straight,” I began, “your son has learned to play a computer game at an extremely high level of competence, without going to a single training program. Sometimes he skips meals and sleep to continue playing this game. He does it in spite of his manager’s (mom’s) discouragement. Everything that has been done, up front, violates everything we know about competence and mastery. So, what’s happening?”
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At this moment, I am likely in the air between Vienna, Austria and Shanghai, China. Presenting to two groups of managers on Levels of Work.

Failure of Front End Influence

“So, what do you think was missing?” I asked.

Jamie retraced the steps of her company’s Quality Circles program. Like many good ideas, there was nothing wrong with the program. It was clearly designed to bring out the best in her people. It had short term results, but, in spite of a great deal of up-front planning and expense, the program experienced an early death.

“You are suggesting,” Jamie began, “that we did our front end work well, but we were missing something on the back end?”

I nodded. “One primary function of a manager is to influence behavior. Indeed, to influence behavior, we spend a lot of time in meetings, developing programs, teaching, training, writing manuals. We spend a lot of time up front, trying to influence behavior.”

It was Jamie’s turn to nod. I continued. “While those things we do up front do have an influence, most behavior is not prompted by what comes before but by the consequences that happen after. As Managers, we spend a lot of time training. We see high performance in the training room, but a week later, nothing has changed in the field. The fire is out, the behavior gone.”

What Curbed the Enthusiasm?

“Why do you think your Quality Circles program eventually ran out of gas?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Jamie explained, “people just lost interest, I guess.”

“And why did they lose interest?”

“Well, at first, there was this gung-ho enthusiasm. It was new, but eventually the newness wore off.”

“When you look at the Quality Circles program (or any program) that your company developed, what did you design in, to sustain the program?”

Jamie almost chortled. “Design? We figured if it got started, it would just keep going.”

“Jamie, if you could, think back. Exactly how long did it take for the Quality Circles behavior to die off?”

“I remember, pretty clearly, we started right after the new year, but by March, it was over.”

“So, it took two and half months for the behavior to die off,” I guessed. “And you spent a bunch of money on a consultant to show you how to do this?”

“Oh, yeah, we had a couple of books that we had to read, and we had meetings, planning sessions. It was a big production, right down to the costumes.”

“Costumes?”

“Well, yeah, we had these shirts we were supposed to wear. It was okay, at first, but after a while, people started making fun of the people who wore the shirts.”

“So, there was a great deal of activity, planning and thinking about this beforehand, but not much thinking about what happened after. Jamie, I want you to think long and hard about this sequence.

  • A lot of activity before the behavior
  • Then the behavior
  • The behavior died off.”

Jamie squinted her eyes, clearly imagining the sequence. “So, we did a lot of stuff up front, but didn’t do much on the back end.”

“Yes, so what do you think was missing?”

Keep Them or Transition Them Out

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In an attempt to retain their highest producers, a call center instituted an incentive plan that highly favored a group of seven. These “Magnificent Seven,” as the partners called them, did produce a high percentage of the revenues. But they were also highly dysfunctional as a group as each one was high maintenance with lots of personal baggage in his/her own right. While the reward system worked to retain these seven, the churn rate for the remaining 23 seats was over 400%. In effect, the incentives to retain seven people came at the expense of morale, work environment, job satisfaction and even the bottom line. The cost of continuously replacing the 23 employees far exceeded the benefit of retaining the seven. Your thoughts?

Response:
So, if I was a direct manager and needed high volume sales for only the next three months, I would go the M-7 every time. But, that is not the way most organizations work. Most organizations need sustained revenue over years and decades. Most organizations need a sustainable system of sales which contemplates sales methodology, recruiting, orientation, portfolio growth, levels of work, promotion and retirement. This goes back to time span.

Three months time span – Magnificent Seven
Ten year time span – Not the Magnificent Seven

What is Work?

“Max, I know how you feel about your team’s attitude toward work. You believe they only show up for the paycheck. You believe, as a manager, you have to incentivise them above their normal pay, with a bonus or spiff to get them to pay attention, or otherwise engage in discretionary effort. Your belief is in line with many employee studies that say most are NOT engaged with their work. So, let’s not talk about your team. Let’s talk about you.”

“Alright, I’m game. But, understand that I am here for the money, too,” Max clarified.

“Yes, you are right, we do have to pay competitive. More importantly, we have to get money off the table. As long as people focus on money, or, because of their circumstance, have to focus on money, employee engagement will be fleeting, at best.”

“Okay, but understand that I am still here for the money.”

“Are you really? I could show you a number of ways that you could make a great deal more money than you are making right, now,” I teased.

“I am all ears,” Max replied.

“If you were willing to sell marijuana, which is now legal in some states, you would make more money than you are currently making.” I stopped to gauge his reaction to this unusual suggestion.

“Yeah, but.”

“But, what?” I interrupted. “You see, it’s not all about the money. People, even you, want work where you can make a contribution to something larger than you. You want work where you can bring your full capability, spread your wings AND receive fair compensation for that work. You want work where your contribution is recognized as important, work that does NOT need a carrot-or-stick for you to get on with that work.”

Max was quiet. He was thinking.

“Max, you are the manager of your team. You get to design that team, select that team and create the environment that team works in. As the manager, you DECIDE the culture of that team. What will be your foundation? Will it be built around spiffs, or accomplishment? I have never known a person to be more competent in their role because they were paid a bonus.”

What Drives Behavior?

“So, what am I to do?” Max challenged. “I have to give them a bonus. The work is routine, in some cases, monotonous. I mean, I know, at my level, it is easier to get satisfaction from my work, not total satisfaction, but there are times when I actually enjoy work. I get a sense of accomplishment. But, my team? I can only imagine they come to work for the money. If it weren’t for the money, they would find something else to do. The only way I can get their attention is with a results-based financial incentive.”

“Tell me more,” I prompted.

“Well, it is pretty apparent. All you have to do is watch what happens. I give my team a bonus for hitting a certain production number and it is amazing how accurately they hit that number.”

“So, tell me, their base salary? What is that for?” I wanted to know.

“Base salary is just so they will show up. If I want them to hit a goal, I have to sweeten the pot. Give them a little kicker. It is just the way it is,” Max insisted.

“I want to understand. As the manager, you create the system, the environment in which people work. The culture you have created is that, for their base salary, your team just has to show up, they don’t really have to do anything special. They can survive on your team by doing less than their best. And that if you, as the manager, truly need anything specific done, a target, a goal, the only way you can motivate them is with a spiff?”

Max nodded. “That’s pretty much it.”

“So, you hold back a little money, and if, and only if, they meet the goal, they get a bonus?”

“Well, yes, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But, of course, now everyone expects the bonus, kind of like they are entitled to it. So, sometimes, I have to strongly remind them that the bonus is at risk. That’s what we talk about at the team meeting. If we don’t hit the goal, the team doesn’t get its bonus.”

“So, the bonus doesn’t truly drive behavior. You have to remind them that the bonus drives behavior?”

Incentives as a Guided Misadventure

Reggie looked at me sideways. “Do you mean that this whole complicated issue regarding incentive compensation, that we hired expensive consultants to help us with, may be a guided misadventure?”

“You tell me,” I replied. “What type of environment do you create when you tell people that you are holding back part of their compensation because you don’t trust them to do their best?”

“You just said it, it creates an environment of distrust,” Reggie declared.

“And what kind of behavior does this distrust create?”

“Whooo! It’s all over the board. Some people work really hard, appear very dedicated and some people try to figure out how to manipulate the system to their advantage. I don’t know. Come to think of it, the people who seem committed, who perform the best, are the kind of people who would work very diligently even without the bonus.”

“And would you describe those people as stupid for working so hard without having a bonus as a carrot?”

Reggie shook his head. “No. I would have to say that is just who those people are. The words are -dependable-integrity-earnest.”

“So, what do you think this incentive plan is accomplishing?”

Bonuses in Most Companies

“How else are you supposed to motivate people?” Reggie asked. “I look around at what other companies do and bonus systems are used almost everywhere.”

“Why do you think bonuses are used in most companies as a motivation tool?” I asked.

“Well, I just don’t know of any other way to get people to go the extra mile, to give their best effort,” Reggie defended.

“I think you have your answer.”

Reggie looked puzzled.

“That’s your answer,” I continued. “Most companies use bonus systems, because they don’t know any other ways to properly motivate their teams.”