Tag Archives: motivation

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.

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?”

Motivation is a Weasel Word

“I know hiring the right person takes work,” Marianna said. “But sometimes I just don’t feel motivated to spend the time.”

“Motivated? Motivation is a weasel word. You either do the work or you do not do the work. Motivation to do the work sounds like you would rather talk about the work than actually do the work. And, yes, it is hard work, but you can either do the hard work up front or you can do the hard managing after you have selected the wrong person. You decide,” I replied.

Marianna attempted to speak, but must have swallowed her words.

I pressed on. “Look, the person who actually does the work, just does it. If you want to talk about it, you are just delaying the task, perhaps hoping that someone else will do the work for you, or that at the end of the day, you are relieved of your responsibility to make the important selection. There are no management tricks in the hiring process, just deciding what you need in the role and finding out if the person is capable of doing that work.”
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Homage to Lee Thayer, Leadership, Thinking, Being, Doing. “Motivation is a weasel word.”

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.”

Connecting Values to Behavior in the Interview

“We just had our annual planning meeting,” Kelly explained. “We talked about our core values as a company, and wanted to find a way to integrate that intention into our interview process when we recruit new people into our company. But how do you interview for values? You can’t just ask someone, if they have integrity.”

“You can interview for anything that you can connect to behavior,” I replied. “That goes for any critical role requirement. Connect it to behavior and the questions will follow.”

“Okay, integrity,” Kelly challenged.

“Here’s the magic question. How does a person, who has integrity behave? Then ask about a circumstance where you might see that behavior?

  • Tell me about a time when (my favorite lead in) you were working on a project, where something happened, that wasn’t supposed to happen, and you were the only one who knew about it.?
  • Tell me about a time when, you found out that someone took a shortcut on a project that had an impact on quality, but you were the only one who knew about it?
  • Tell me about a time when, you were working on a project, and someone confided in you about a quality standard or safety standard that everyone else had overlooked, and now, the two of you were the only ones who knew about it?
  • Tell me about a time when, you were in charge of quality control on a project, and in the final audit, you discovered something wrong, and it took significant re-work and expense to fix.

“Once the candidate has identified a possible circumstance, then ask about the behaviors connected with integrity.

  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • Who was on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project?
  • What went wrong on the project?
  • How did you discover it?
  • How were you the only one who knew about it?
  • What impact did the hidden problem have on the project?
  • What did you do? Who did you talk to? What did you say?
  • How was the problem resolved?
  • What was the impact of the re-work required in costs, materials and time?
  • Tell me about another time when you discovered something wrong and you were the only one who knew about it?

“Would it be okay to ask about personal dilemmas, secrets and betrayals?” Kelly asked.

“Everybody has personal drama. I prefer to stick with work examples. It’s all about the work.”

More examples in my book, Hiring Talent. Hiring guru, Barry Shamis also discusses in his book Hiring 3.0.