The Myth of Motivation

Alec Baldwin, with his best flinty-eyed glare, announces the new sales contest.

“First prize,” he says “is a brand new Cadillac Eldorado.  Second prize is this set of steak knives.  Third prize:  You’re fired.”

The movie is “Glengarry, Glenross.”  Baldwin is the ruthless sales manager addressing his motley crew of losers and has-beens.  Their mission is to sell questionable land developments.  His is to motivate them.

Here lies one of the most pervasive concerns of executives everywhere:  How to motivate the troops.  An entire industry has been built around this question.  Contests and incentive plans abound.  Indeed, I’ve implemented and participated in my share over the years.  No question they can be fun, even useful.  But they can’t instill fundamental motivation where it doesn’t already exist.

Let me share with you a story.

Bob was a sales guy for a major mid-west company.  This company was fond of sales contests and Bob routinely won the top prize.  It got to the point where his boss, with Bob’s consent, would rig the contests so someone else could win occasionally; just so the rest of the troops wouldn’t get discouraged.

Not surprisingly, one day Bob was asked to address a sales meeting and share his secret for consistently turning in the top, winning numbers.  What, he was asked, do you do to win when a contest is announced?

“Nothing,” said Bob.  “While collecting the prizes is kind of nice, the truth is I find these contests vaguely insulting.

“The implication is that day-to-day, I’m not doing my job.  Not giving my best effort, not going after every sale I could.  Management seems to feel they have to bribe us to get our best performance.  Doesn’t say much for their view of our professionalism.

“So the contests come and go and I pay very little attention.  I focus on doing my job the best way I know how.  If that means I win, that’s OK, too.”

 “So what motivates you?”

“The most motivating thing any manger ever did for me was to say that the best thing he could do was to stay the hell out of my way and let me do my job.  And then he did just that.  I made him and our company a lot of money during those years, and loved every minute of it.”

A fairly striking response.  When I’ve had bosses like that it certainly worked for me.  For you too, I’d guess.

So, where does all this motivation come from?  There’s good news and bad news.

The bad news is that, despite everything you may have heard to the contrary, as a manager you have very little influence in motivating your people.

The good news is:  It doesn’t matter.

Years ago a major airline ran a TV ad with the tag line, “We don’t teach our people to be nice.  We hire nice people.”  What a great shortcut!

It strikes upon a profound truth:  People form their basic behavior patterns at a very young age.  Psychologists tell us that by the time we are five years old we have our fundamental personalities in place.  Some say it’s largely genetic.

If you want nice people, you had better hire nice people.  If you want motivated people, you had better hire people with motivation.  The harsh truth is there’s not much you can do to instill it if it’s not already there.

Fortunately for your company, and companies across the country, the vast majority of people already have a healthy dose of motivation built in.  They come to new jobs, new assignments, new challenges and new opportunities already fired up.

Unfortunately, in all too many cases, they then have it beaten out of them by the relentless bureaucracy and mismanagement of the very organizations they are trying so hard to serve.

My favorite business consultant is fond of saying, “Most companies succeed in spite of the way they are managed.  Not because of it.”  Put another way, given half a chance, most people are so profoundly self-motivated they rise above the way they’re managed.

Bosses should worry less about motivating people and focus more on making sure they and their organizations are not actively, if unintentionally, DE-motivating them.  Back off a bit and let people blossom.  Allow that built-in motivation to expand and grow.

If motivation is a fire, you can’t build it in others.  It has to already be there.  But just not throwing on a bucket of water works wonders.

Unfortunately, too many bosses and organizations are addicted to that water.  They may have been raised and trained on it.  Bad management theories have them convinced that if they just beat on people long and hard enough, they will “straighten up and fly right.”

It never works.  It’s like trying to teach a pig to fly.  You can only hope to fail, frustrate yourself and irritate the pig.

We might do well to remember the first creed of physicians:  “Above all, do no harm.”

Care to comment?  Just click on the circle on the top right of the post.

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Important Resources

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  1. Janine says

    I just read both your posts. I am HOOKED! You are very motivating and your thoughts apply to the masses on many different levels. Keep up the good work. You have found your niche. It may seem odd, but often I think of people as to whether or not I would invite them to Thanksgiving dinner. Would I want to open my home and share my family and friends with this person? Would the conversation over green been casserole be interesting – even it if were just about the weather? My reject list is long. My invite list is short and oh so varied. Well, my friend, you are invited for Thanksgiving dinner.

  2. Trish Rempen says

    I love this.
    I came to the same realization not too long ago (pretty pathetic, for someone who’s run a business for 26 years-) — and figured:
    1. I can show the salespeople
    …what we sell….details, selling points, etc
    ….who they should be seeing….with all the contact info, addresses, websites, etc…
    2. and if they don’t take it and run, get someone who will.

    No point trying to change anyone.
    You can only lead so many horses to so many watering holes.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      don’t feel bad, Trish…..

      …that’s the way most of us are managed and so it’s the way we manage in turn. at least at first.

      I’d love to have back all the hours I wasted trying to force the horses to drink. and I bet they wish even more to have the hours they spent refusing back. 🙂

      lose/lose. 😉

  3. vorlic says

    I like the picture and quote from Office Space 1999. Boy, that film changed my life… second place to your Blog of Wisdom.

    Merry Christmas to you, Mr Collins.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      I’m an Office Space fan as well. It never gets old…

      “Jumping to Conclusions”

      “I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob….”

      Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  4. Garrett says

    Everything in this article is so spot-on. I’m getting water thrown on me these days right as I’m igniting my own motivational fire. Constant micromanaging and stupid management decisions are pissing me off, particularly because I’m one of the top sales reps in my organization. A+ article.

  5. vorlic says

    Hello Mr Collins,

    This Lockdown crap and all that it’s causing is really get me down. So I came to your blog for a dose of calm optimism.

    It did the trick.

    When’s your next article?

    I hope you, yours and Steve MkII are well.


    PS I threw much more than normal at the market between mid March through June. It was really hard, felt totally wrong, but I gritted my teeth… and lo! I passed my first true test 😊 The good lady did the same. And both of us with .

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Vorlic…

      Always nice to see you here, especially on an OG post like this one!

      No plans for another post just now. That flurry around the market/Covid volatility last spring was enough to last me. 🙂

      We are doing fine and waiting out the plague at Kibanda until we can resume our nomadic ways.

      Hope you and yours are doing well too!

  6. Patrick says

    “If motivation is a fire, you can’t build it in others. It has to already be there.”

    Probably the best way I’ve heard this put. For me, it was about finding out what/where my motivation was, and then kindling it. You can’t force it, you have to find it.


  7. AD says

    This is profound. I know this is true but never heard it worded like this. I wish Elon Musk would be amenable to such constructive criticism. But alas he is one of the many assholes in the sea.

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