Problems in Applying Motivation Theories

For as long as people have been working, other people have been trying to figure out how to motivate them to work better, faster, smarter. Today, motivational theories offer ideas of how to best motivate others and even motivate oneself. But the reason there’s not just one way of motivating people is that, of course, people aren’t robots and there is no sure-fire solution. That’s why any great leader will know more than one path to overcoming a lack of motivation in others.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Everyone is motivated for different reasons. To truly motivate someone, find out what they want or need, then give them ways to achieve that.

Problems in Motivation

Food — you eat it every day, but why do you eat it? Because you’re hungry or because you need fuel or because you’re bored or because it looks so tasty? There’s no one answer to why humans consume food, even though the most basic reason is “we need to”, because it’s the 21st century and humans don’t have to kill, or even cook, their food anymore: phone up and get delivery.

The problem with motivation is it’s never black and white, and it’s not one-size-fits-all. It’s like they say: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. So it is also with humans. Just because humans need to eat to survive doesn't mean it's the motivation behind what humans eat, where they eat it or why they're eating that.

Motivation theorists try to understand what drives people to perform, but some folks are driven to climb mountains while others just want to paint their hutch on Sunday while they listen to NPR. Leaders, though, realize that victory is ultimately about the people they can motivate rather than those they can’t.

Example: Incentive Theory

Action + reward = incentive theory, in practice. For example, sales commission is a slave to the incentive theory because if an employee sells more cars that month, they know they’ll take home more money — so the result, in theory, is that they’ll sell more cars and more revenue is generated for the company.

Other, less tangible incentives work too — like the promise of praise when completing a task, or the buzz high one gets as a reward for a great workout.

The problem with incentive theory, though, is work shouldn’t always need to reward an employee with incentives, because, really, isn’t that what the paycheck is for? Finding a happy balance between incentives and simple good work ethic is a challenge both in theory and for the accounting books.

Example: Arousal Theory

Dopamine and endorphins are neurotransmitters that get triggered like a light switching on when humans get excited or anticipatory about things happening. Consider the rush of landing an important client, winning a big case or succeeding in getting the green light for a hard-fought project — all these achievements come with the thrill of arousal, those endorphins and dopamine triggers firing like mad.

But what gets a person aroused physiologically and mentally isn’t a universal experience, so while one employee might be totally ready to go at the thought of doing a month’s overtime to land a major client, another guy might be horrified by the same project because he’s a family man first. Just landing the major client might be motivation enough for Employee “A,” whereas promising the family man a month of long weekends as a reward could drive him to incredible heights.

Emerging Challenges in Motivating Employees

At times it feels like society is going two ways. “Super cities” like Istanbul, Hong Kong, New York and Los Angeles are sprawling metropolises as society gets much more urban in a less agricultural, more corporate world. But, on the flip side, remote work is technologically possible. With remote work comes an even greater motivational challenge: how to keep people productive, and to trust in their productivity, while they work solo in far-flung locales around the world.