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Motivating Others Involves More Than Incentives
25-Feb-05 [ by Larry Chao ] 9603 Read and 135 Comment

Businesses seeking to progress must address a weak link in their organization: de-motivated employees who often put a drag on performance. This might require managers to examine themselves as part of the solution‚ writes Larry Chao.

While telecommunications and information technology continue to advance in leaps and bounds‚ the practice of management seems stuck in the dark ages; bound by the capability of people to leverage human talent beyond dated management theories. For instance‚ in a recent edition of Harvard Business Review‚ the average date of when five articles - touting best practices in the field of motivation - were written was 1976.

Yet despite the lack of significant breakthroughs in management theory‚ there is a pressing need for businesses to improve the contributions of their people and productivity. There have been some innovations like Six Sigma‚ where processes guide improvement and change‚ but less so for how to develop individual potential.

"A manager's greatest challenge is to motivate and bring out the best in subordinates‚" says Tina Liu‚ director of rooms at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit‚ where motivated employees drive service quality. "Motivated employees can improve execution 100% and contribute immeasurable to a healthy work environment."

But with change lashing through today's business climate‚ creating downsizing‚ broken career promises and unpredictable workload strains‚ how do you motivate employees effectively through all this uncertainty? How do you inspire employees who might have become disenfranchised with the company's mission and are just going through the motions at work?

"Our job as managers is to understand how to motivate each individual and then to provide him or her with the skills and confidence to succeed‚" says Liu. "This involves understanding the situation involved‚ what motivates the individual and the task at hand."

Liu's suggestion goes beyond conventional beliefs that suggest an all or nothing approach. For example‚ using reprimands to produce the most immediate results‚ or using positive reinforcement in all situations. According to Liu‚ to know how to motivate requires a more careful exploration of why a person is not motivated in the first place.

"Perhaps a subordinate made a mistake because he did not understand what he was supposed to do‚ or had a conflicting task and did not know how to prioritize‚" continues Liu. "But to jump to conclusions and punish without knowing the circumstances surrounding the problem can only de-motivate further. One needs to diagnose first and then apply the appropriate form of motivation."

What managers fail to recognize is that often they are the source of de-motivation. To rectify the situation‚ therefore‚ managers need to take a hard look at how their own behavior might contribute to the de-motivating experience of others.

By including themselves in the definition of the problem‚ managers can cast the net of possible solutions at the right range. For example‚ a manager's efforts to motivate a subordinate might go in one ear and out the other. Perhaps the manager has misdiagnosed the subordinate's true needs. Continued effort to motivate is like banging one's head against a wall.

A manager's expectations of a subordinate can also influence performance. Low expectations can encourage low performance in what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Personality clashes that prevent boss and subordinate from working smoothly together can exacerbate de-motivation. It would be interesting for managers to see how subordinates view them. In all the above cases‚ the manager contributes equally to the de-motivating experience of the subordinate.

Finally‚ managers pre-occupied with their own problems may simply be unaware that their subordinates feel unappreciated and de-motivated. "You can't expect to motivate other people if you are constantly distracted or are depressed about something outside of work. People can quickly pick up that your words of encouragement are forced and insincere. That can be even more destructive than no words at all‚" says Liu.

So what is a practical way forward to help managers motivate subordinates in this age of uncertainty? In addition to setting clear goals and supporting incentives‚ managers should understand the circumstances surrounding why subordinates fail to produce or fail to act motivated before rushing into solutions. Often what managers discover is that they contribute at least in part to the de-motivating experience. Therefore‚ fixing the relationship between subordinate and manager‚ rather than fixing the subordinate becomes the goal. A shift in attitude to understand the de-motivated subordinate's situation‚ attitude‚ and views on motivation from his or her perspective‚ will allow managers to begin unraveling the mysteries of how to motivate more effectively.

Larry Chao is managing director of Chao Group Limited‚ an organization change and training boutique located in Bangkok and New York.

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