Horses or Humans – Control or Motivation

In the current complex and dynamic business environment where disruptive forces abound and competition is fierce, it is more important than ever to have a workforce that is engaged and motivated in a way that makes your people the organisation’s competitive advantage. Yet we still consistently see organisations that view their businesses like complicated machines and the people in them as components of the overall machinery. To make this machinery run smoothly – to get people doing what we want them to do when you want them doing it – they believe they need to reward desirable behaviour and punish unwanted behaviour.

Two brown horses in a team
This control-based approach to managing people dates back to the practice of “scientific management” developed by Frederick Taylor in the early 1900s as a way to bring businesses in line with the Industrial Revolution. The “carrot and the stick” approach is built on the metaphor that a team of humans is like a team of horses – dangle a bunch of “carrots” in the direction that you hope to lead them and base biological drivers will compel them to follow; whack them with a sharp stick when they step out of line and in line they will stay. Most important of all is the belief that a good manager keeps a firm hand on the reins so that the team remains under control. In fact, on a recent project the senior manager often talked of the need to “drive the team” in order to get positive results. While more modern management philosophies are advancing the need for organisations to engage with their employees, it is still amazing to see that this approach to worker motivation still persists in many organisations today.

Studies have shown that external incentives and the fear of punishment rank quite low as motivators for today’s workforce and are, in fact, detrimental in the long run where the work is non-routine and knowledge-based. Economists, behavioural scientists and psychologists have all found that, although these external motivators can appear to create short-term results improvement, these results are almost always far short of what’s possible when compared with what can be achieved by an engaged and motivated team.

These studies have shown that “internal” motivation can be far more powerful than external motivation for businesses and business endeavours that require creativity and problem-solving. Daniel H. Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us refers to this internal motivation as Type I behaviour and identifies the three elements that foster this behaviour as purpose, autonomy and mastery.  To engage a team’s internal motivation you must tap into their innate need for a sense of purpose – to be part of something larger than themselves; the need for self-determination – the ability to direct their own lives; and their desire to learn, grow and create.

To sustain engagement and motivation, you have to understand what motivates performance. Teresa Amabile, of Harvard Business School, completed a multiyear study of hundreds of workers and found that “progress” is the number one performance motivator for a knowledge-based workforce. Interestingly, when Amabile conducted a separate survey of 600 managers from dozens of companies and asked them to rank the workplace impacts on employee motivation and performance of five key factors (recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, progress and clear goals), they ranked “progress” last. Presumably these managers believed that without a healthy supply of carrots and a firm hand on the reins, the horses would wander into the paddock and start munching clover at the first opportunity.

So how can an organisation move beyond the ineffective carrot and stick management practice and enable a workplace that brings out the very best in their people? Projects.  Quality projects are not only the bridge to a new way of leading businesses, but are fertile ground for the growth of an internally motivated and engaged team. By moving beyond what traditional practice has taught us about implementing projects, we can tap into the power that exists within our workforce:

  • Purpose. Aligning around what represents Value on the project allows the team members to connect with the business value that they are looking to deliver as well as form a collective sense of purpose for the team.
  • Autonomy. A team that is structured and operationalised to make the people doing the work responsible for planning and controlling it creates that sense of self-determination that allows teams to explore the boundaries of what’s possible. Leadership that provides the necessary support and champions the project rather than driving the team creates the space for success.
  • Mastery. A project framework that structures the work in a way that focuses on inter-team reliability and continuous improvement rather than rewarding or punishing short-term results allows the team to pursue mastery.
  • Progress. The finite and transformational nature of projects lend themselves nicely to interim objectives against which progress can be readily seen.

In navigating the ever-shifting business landscape of the 21st century, the most successful companies have come to realise long-term success and the nimbleness to respond to this dynamic business environment will only come by tapping the power of their workforce – its engagement, dedication and creativity. These organisations are demonstrating what science has been telling us for four decades – a team that has purpose, is self-determined and encouraged to seek the best of themselves will create far more business value than the highly-controlled workforce of the post-industrial revolution.

Questions for consideration:

  • Is your business management philosophy founded in the external motivation of reward and punishment or do you seek to engender an internally motivated workforce?
  • Are your employees cogs in your great business machinery or the source of your business creativity and resilience?
  • Do your managers look to maintain control and drive results or do they provide leadership and support?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share them in the comments area below.

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