Motivation, Power and Self Interest

Leeds Photo by Barnaby Alldrick
Leeds Photo by Barnaby Alldrick

Carmine Coyote has written a provocative post which explores the fundamental dishonesty of motivation.

But I think Carmine has given motivation a bum rap!

What has been called ‘motivation’ is really ‘manipulation’.  Manipulation to get people to do something that the manager wants them to do.

Now I don’t think any manager can ‘motivate’ anyone beyond the short term fix of the pep talk.  (I think that we should set trading standards onto speakers who claim to be ‘motivational’.  The good ones might educate about motivation – but in my experience the motivational, as opposed to the educational, impact of their presentations tails off within a few hours of their closing remarks.)

What managers can do is to help each employee to get really clear on their (the employees) self interest and how working towards organisational objectives serves it.  Once this is done motivation will follow as sure as night follows day.  Or the employee will leave to find a place where they can pursue their self interest more effectively.  And this really forces employers to look at the value proposition that offer to their employees.  Why should good, compassionate, competent people choose to spend their working hours with us?  If it is just for the money then “Houston, we have  problem!”

Self interest, rightly understood, properly negotiated with others and then pursued with vigour and power leads to remarkable results and one of its many by-products is ‘motivation’.  Others are inspiration, creativity, innovation, passion, energy, vigour, strength.  But the proper negotiation with others is critical.  Blending self interests, weaving them together,  ensuring that they reinforce rather than undermine each other, lies at the root of all high performing teams.  And this is the real craft of the progressive manager.

The trouble is most of us feel uncomfortable about pursuing self interest.  We are uncomfortable talking about it.  We don’t even like to give ourselves the time to think about it.  We have been socialised to suppress our self interest and look for opportunities to serve others.  And VERY few managers build the kind of relationships where self interest (of all parties) can be clarified and negotiated fully to the benefit of all.

Carmine’s point about the fundamental dishonesty of motivation, that it is about getting people to ‘do more work for less reward’ is, I believe, a misrepresentation.  Employees who create value deserve a proportionate share of that value and this depends on the proper negotiation of self interest.  If the negotiation is not proper, but unfair, then self interest is not fully served and as a result motivation erodes.

Increasingly the nature of the reward is more than simply financial.  Employees are looking for a diverse and intensely personal cocktail of rewards with ingredients that include fulfilment, challenge, flexibility, creativity and personal and professional development.  These are essential components of self interest for most of us and help to keep people motivated at least as much as money, which is just a hygiene factor.

Appreciation also needs to be part of the mix.  It absolutely is part of the package of ‘rewards’ that most of us look for at work.  And it is a part of the job that many managers struggle with as they tend to leave things alone until they go wrong.

And perhaps we (professional management educators) need to do more with managers on ‘motivation’ as an emergent property – the preconditions for which require a full and proper negotiation of self interest(s) and the development of the employees power to pursue it with vigour.

And while I don’t think that people are any different in the third sector, I do think that the cocktail of self interest often needs to be much more carefully balanced.  And many third sector managers forget this at their peril.  Few of us join social enterprises to be overt vehicles for the delivery of government policy.  We join social enterprises to promote social justice.  And the ‘self interests’ of politicians and the promotion of social justice are rarely properly negotiated.

Your thoughts….

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Its All About the Relationships, Stupid!

One of the basic assumptions behind my work in the Progressive Managers’ Network is that excellent performance depends on excellent relationships.  Relationships that are characterised by:

  • engagement
  • honesty
  • 2-way communication
  • creativity and innovation from everyone
  • development and progress

And still the most common objection that I face in my training?  “Mike I haven’t got time to spend building relationships.  I just need to get them to do as I ask.”  The longer term pursuit of excellence is consistently hi-jacked for the short term acceptance of mediocrity.

Great post here from Carmine Coyote which provides some clues about why getting relationships right really matters.

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Why Doesn’t Motivation Work?

This is a question I was asked recently by someone in local government.  ‘How come some people travel two thousand miles in search of a job, while others won’t even get on a bus?’

It is a question that deserves consideration – and I believe that the answer lies in both hope and fear.

With hope, travel (both geographical and psychological) is a necessity.  Where there is hope we are driven to pursue it.  Without hope then even the smallest step towards self improvement might not be taken.  The person that travels two thousand miles does so in hope.  The hope that they will find their share of the wealth and that they will be able to alleviate conditions at home by sending some of this wealth back.

The person that won’t get on the bus is in the true sense of the word hopeless in this area of their lives.  What IS the point of another trip to the job centre or the college that will just end up in yet another failure?  It is hard to believe that the institutions that are there to help can be of any help at all.  It is an example of what the psychologists call Learned Helplessness.

The second part of the equation is fear.  How will my life unfold if I don’t take personal responsibility for changing things?  Almost certainly the person prepared to travel thousands of miles is doing so to escape literally fearful conditions at home.  Maybe war or violent crime.  Maybe the type of crushing poverty that leaves you without decent housing and with no hope for improvement at home.  Escape is perceived as an urgent priority, literally life and death.

But what about the person that won’t get on the bus?  How will their life unfold as a consequence?  Well they will remain just like a significant proportion of their peers – which they will find comforting.  As a group they can collectively blame others for their condition.  They can claim benefits and perhaps do a bit of work on the side.  And there is certainly ‘excitement’ to be had – everything from Jeremy Kyle through Diamond White to adrenaline pumping crime.  In the short term life is not so bad.  The longer term consequences maybe less than optimal – but people can always defer worrying about the future. As the Office of Science and Technology puts it “Evidence shows that people may be biased towards seeking short-term rewards at the expense of greater long-term benefits.”

So the need is to offer real hope and a realistic assessment of the long term consequences of not getting on the bus.  It is to help people start to explore their ‘enterprising soul’.  And this is not about a half day ‘business start-up’ workshop.

The tragically ironic thing about the people that travel two thousand miles?  For many, within a few months of arriving, a forced engagement with depressing ESOL classes and tussles with bureaucracy soon lead to the same sense of learned helplessness that means they too will no longer get on a bus.

You see, the problem is that motivation always works – perfectly.

It is ‘the system’ that let us down.

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Holding Difficult Conversations at Work

Much of my work is about providing managers with safe and effective ways to have conversations that they would instinctively prefer to avoid.  Conversations about behaviours and approaches that don’t contribute towards excellent performance.

If they do choose to address the issue most managers have to force themselves to say things, to use words and phrases that are not (yet), a part of their everyday management vocabulary.

There is a great post here by Steve Roesler that offers some useful and practical insights into getting these difficult conversations right.

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Enterprise = Power x Self Interest

I have written about this formulation before, that enterprise is a factor of power and self interest.  It is still working for me and bearing fruits.

I was attracted to this video from Demos that provides some useful insights into, and questions around, the nature of power.


So what do you think?

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Aziz Ansari

Some gentle jolts around diversity, stereotypes, celebrity, Kanye West and social marketing/Web 2.0.

And a lot of laughs!

Another video – and you will need sound for this one.

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Are You a Jackass or a Progressive?

There is a widespread belief that the best way to manage a donkey is through a combination of stick and carrot.

As long as the right ‘extrinsic motivation’ is applied at the right time, at the right end, there is a chance that the donkey will do what we want it to.

  • Unless of course the donkey has had enough carrots for one day
  • Or becomes so accustomed to the stick that it is no longer effective
  • Or the donkey sees it self interest lying elsewhere – enough carrots for one day – I am heading off for the nettles….

Then the donkey is very likely to go into stubborn mode.

We might try bigger sticks and juicier carrots, but the donkey is not for turning.  ‘Jackass Management’ no longer works.

Even when it is working as well as it can, the best we get from ‘Jackass Management’ is a situation where the donkey does the bare minimum neccesary to pursue the carrot and avoid the stick.

Yet ‘Jackass Management’ is still incredibly prevalent.  Sub-conscious perhaps – but prevalent.  Our own self image as ‘an enlightened and person centred manager’ may prevent us from seeing our own jackass tactics.  But we cannot escape the mediocrity that our ‘Jackass’ Management creates.

The alternative is a management that is based on a genuine relationship in which both parties self interests are clearly negotiated and mutually pursued. Management in which both parties strive to give us much as they can – because they believe that is in their own self interest – rather than doing as little as they can to get the carrot and avoid the stick.

I call this Progressive Management.

Making the shift from ‘Jackass Management’ to Progressive Management is not difficult.  It does take some time, a little technique and a lot of courage.  It leads to:

  • significant productivity improvements
  • increased well being
  • reduced workplace stress
  • more creativity and innovation
  • better employee engagement
  • lower costs and
  • happier customers.

It requires us to see our job as helping other people to do great work rather than as donkeys to be manipulated to our will.

So why don’t more people make the transition from ‘Jackass’ to ‘Progressive’?  Because they are too busy wielding sticks and carrots to take the time.

If you would like to learn how to be a Progressive Manager then please visit

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Starting with People not Enterprise Targets

Many programmes designed to promote more enterprising cultures make the same mistake.

Because they are funded to create business starts and VAT registrations they use this as their starting point.  They lose track of the fact that they are being funded specifically because the communities that they serve have had a historically low level of start ups.  For sure they will find some people who respond to the offer of help to start a business.  And they can help this tiny minority to make progress.  But they would almost certainly have done it any way.  These are the enterprising exceptions.

For many in the community a lot more work will be required to build trusting relationships, nurture confidence and develop aspirations – based on the clients context and their perceptions of what constitutes progress – not the policy goals of the funders.  We have to engage our clients where they are in the enterprising journey – and not where we would would like them to be to fit neatly with our policy goals and our carefully designed programmes.

So instead of asking ‘Have You Got a Fantastic Business Idea’ we should be asking:

  • ‘Do you feel that there should be more to life?’ or
  • ‘Frustrated? Angry? Want things to Change for the Better?’
  • ‘Feel That You are Wasting Your Life Away?’

People who answer ‘Yes’ to these questions may not yet be ready to start a business – but they are likely to be open to support to become more enterprising.

And if we can start them on an enterprising journey, who knows where they might end up?

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Why Do I Work In Enterprise?

‘We pass through this world but once.

Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life,

Few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive,

Or even to hope,

By a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.’

Stephen Jay Gould

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