Employee Motivation: Focus on Process Instead of Results

Managers often miss the most important part of performance management conversations by focusing only on results and accountability, says Susan Fowler, author of the new book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does. Fowler recommends that managers shift their focus from holding people accountable for results to looking at creating the type of environment where people will take on the responsibility for those results themselves.

“There is a huge difference between seeing your job as holding people accountable for results versus helping them to be accountable. People want to be accountable. They want to make a contribution and do the right thing. If you, as a manager, find yourself having to hold people accountable, there is a breakdown in the process and in the way that goals, metrics, and the work environment have been defined.

“People are always motivated,” explains Fowler. “Your job as a leader is to understand why a person is motivated the way they are and then help them understand their choices, opportunities, and options.”

Fowler encourages leaders to recognize different Motivational Outlooks—or reasons people are motivated. Motivational Outlooks fall into two broad categories with significantly different implications: optimal and suboptimal.

Suboptimal Motivational Outlooks describe when the reason a person is motivated is based on money, rewards, status, power, and other external incentives; or pressure to perform, fear of underperforming, threatening timelines, and overwhelming conditions—classic carrots and sticks.

Optimal Motivational Outlooks describe motivation based on work aligned with higher-level values or connected to a noble purpose, or inherent joy and pleasure. Optimal Motivational Outlooks satisfy employees’ need for autonomy, relatedness, or competence. When people act from optimal Motivational Outlooks, they see the value of their work and how it helps them experience an increased sense of control, enhanced relationships, and new skills.

Over time, these two motivational approaches play out very differently in organizations. Organizations whose practices promote suboptimal Motivational Outlooks not only suffer long-term performance, productivity, and innovation loss, but also find themselves dealing with the aftermath of thwarting people’s psychological needs: namely low morale, high turnover, absenteeism, inventory shrinkage, and other ways of people acting out to make up for what they are missing. It leads to an attitude of work as a transaction, “I will only do this if I get that.”

“There is a huge opportunity loss with this approach,” explains Fowler. “We are not getting the best from people under those conditions. Workplaces based on suboptimal Motivational Outlooks—carrots or sticks—to increase results may achieve short-term behavior change but end up with compliance, not commitment.”

A Surprising Result from Corporate Wellness Programs

Fowler points to a study looking at well-being programs as an example of how practices that set up suboptimal Motivational Outlooks hurt more than they help. She explains how 75 percent of companies in North America and Europe offer people some form of monetary incentive to improve their health. And yet the studies show that once those incentive programs end and people have received whatever reward they are given, within twelve weeks they have fully reverted to the behaviors they had prior to the program.

“Even worse,” explains Fowler, “over those twelve weeks, they gain back more weight or smoke more than before. Incentives undermine important psychological needs. When the incentive program pops up again, people participate less or look for ways to ‘game’ the system. They go for the prize without any real intention of sustained behavior change.”

A Different Focus

Progressive organizations understand the detrimental effects of traditional motivation and are starting to move in the direction of what works better. The problem is that there is a lot of anxiety, according to Fowler.

“Leaders are concerned—even fearful—about taking the carrot and the stick away. They think, ‘What do I have left? What do I use to motivate people? What do I do?’”

Fowler encourages leaders not to hesitate taking a different approach. “There are alternatives!” To begin, Fowler recommends promoting autonomy, relatedness, and competence. “A good place to start is to change the way you present goals and deadlines that too often undermine people’s sense of autonomy. Reframe goals and deadlines as vital information that will help people succeed instead of techniques for holding people accountable.

“Promote relatedness through values conversations; help people align their work with meaningful values and a sense of purpose. Tap into what is inherently rewarding to people. The best leaders create an alliance with their people that goes beyond compliance. Develop people’s sense of competence by asking, ‘What did you learn today that will help you be better tomorrow?’ instead of only focusing on ‘What did you get done today?’”

It’s about having Motivational Outlook Conversations with people to surface the type of motivation people already have and guide them to better choices—for their own well-being (which also happens to benefit the organization as well).

As Fowler explains, “Leaders want to do the right thing, but without understanding the true nature of human motivation, they fall into traditional traps that plop people into suboptimal Motivational Outlooks. People need autonomy, relatedness, and competence. When those needs are thwarted, people long for something they cannot name. Not understanding the basis of human thriving, people cannot ask for what they don’t know they need. So instead, they end up asking for substitutes to autonomy, relatedness, and competence—such as money, status, and power—that ironically undermine the very things they need.”

Imagine if leaders could teach people about the true nature of human motivation and then develop best practices that help promote optimal Motivational Outlooks. They can, because motivation is a skill. People can learn to shift their Motivational Outlook and experience a higher-quality motivational experience anytime and anywhere they choose.

Fowler’s hope is that leaders everywhere experience a huge sense of relief when they realize that motivation is a skill that they can teach others and practice themselves. That gives leaders extraordinary opportunities that aren’t limited by the carrot and the stick. For more information about Susan’s book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does and a free Motivational Outlook Assessment, visit www.susanfowler.com.


Would you like to learn more about creating a motivating work environment?
Then join us for a free webinar!

Rethinking Five Beliefs That Erode Workplace Motivation

Recorded on October 22, 2014

What are your beliefs about motivation at work? Could they be limiting your effectiveness as a leader? In this webinar, Susan Fowler, author of the new book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does shares how a leader’s basic beliefs can undermine their ability to effectively investigate alternatives, change their methods of motivation, and embrace new ways of leading.

You’ll discover how to:

  • Develop awareness of your own motivation. Understand your motivational outlook as a leader and the reasons you are in a leadership role.
  • Learn how people are always motivated. Gain a greater understanding of the different ways a person can be motivated and the choices and options they have.
  • Recognize motivation is a skill and something that leaders can teach and use with the people they lead.
  • Learn how to shift your own and others’ motivation.

Don’t miss this opportunity to examine the leader’s role in creating a motivating work environment.

View On-Demand