How to stop de­mo­ti­vat­ing your highly mo­ti­vated staff

Jamaica Gleaner - - BUSINESS - Fran­cis Wade is a man­age­ment con­sul­tant and au­thor. To re­ceive a Sum­mary of Links to past col­umns or give feedback, email: col­umns@fw­con­sult­

WHY IS it that so many em­ploy­ees reach their one-year an­niver­sary on the job only to be less mo­ti­vated than when they joined?

Does it rep­re­sent an in­evitable de­cay, a psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­as­ter that can­not be over­come? Or is it a re­sult of out­dated men­tal mod­els?

An old man in ru­ral Ja­maica lived in a house with a zinc roof. One day, school­child­ren pass­ing by on foot de­cided to stone his roof, de­lighted at the loud sound it made. He ran out, alarmed, and chased them away an­grily. The fol­low­ing day, they re­turned with a few more friends and re­peated the act. Once again, he ran them off. On the next day, just be­fore they could es­cape, he ap­proached them calmly. This time, he of­fered them $100 each to come back the next day and do it again. They looked at each other, agreed that he must be crazy, and ar­rived the next day to com­ply.

As promised, he paid them off, and asked them to re­turn the next day for $50. They did, and he re­peated the of­fer, this time promis­ing $25.

As they re­ceived their third in­stal­ment, he apol­o­gised pro­fusely. Money was run­ning out. Now, he could only prom­ise to pay a mere $1 the next day, and even less in the fu­ture. “No way! Who do you think we are?” they shouted – and never re­turned.

As you con­sider this tale you may won­der, as a man­ager, how to es­cape that trap. Per­haps you have given up try­ing to mo­ti­vate em­ploy­ees rang­ing all the way from your house­hold gar­dener to a fel­low com­pany ex­ec­u­tive. It’s all a mat­ter of luck, you ar­gue.

For­tu­nately, re­cent re­search ex­plains why a dif­fer­ent men­tal model for mo­ti­va­tion might help.


At first, the school­child­ren from our story were in­ter­nally mo­ti­vated, en­joy­ing the sound their stones made. His ini­tial, an­gry reaction was a sur­prise bonus.

In­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion re­quires no one else. It en­ables you to take con­tin­u­ous ac­tion be­cause you con­trol your ex­pe­ri­ence. The in­ter­play be­tween your in­flu­ence and pos­i­tive feel­ings keeps you go­ing, even when you aren’t win­ning or mak­ing progress.

Ask world-class per­form­ers. They openly talk about the ben­e­fit of fall­ing in love with the prac­tice of their av­o­ca­tion. While “love” isn’t an ab­so­lute re­quire­ment, the fact is that those who reach top lev­els spend rel­a­tively lit­tle time in com­pe­ti­tion or per­for­mance. Learn­ing to en­joy the long, te­dious process of prepa­ra­tion is a huge plus.

Extrinsic mo­ti­va­tion is quite dif­fer­ent. It’s an in­vented re­ward ad­min­is­tered by third par­ties who set up a con­nec­tion be­tween your cause and their ef­fect. Like the old man in our story, they craft and of­fer a new, extrinsic rea­son to act.


By of­fer­ing the kids a cash in­cen­tive, the old man helped them for­get the pure joy of ston­ing his roof. In his wis­dom, he made a gam­ble: school­child­ren often lack the self-aware­ness re­quired to sur­vive such a dis­tract­ing intervention.

The mo­ral of the story is that some­one else can de­stroy your in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion. Even ac­ci­den­tally.

If this sounds like a cau­tion­ary tale for you and your em­ploy­ees, it should. Man­agers at all lev­els com­plain to me that newly hired staff mem­bers are full of ideas, en­ergy, and will­ing­ness.

After a short while, it all starts to fade and they be­gin to put in just enough ef­fort to avoid be­ing fired. Even­tu­ally, they sound like ev­ery­one else, com­plain­ing about a pay­check they were once over­joyed to re­ceive. Their cor­po­rate prospects de­grade as their ca­reer be­comes ‘just a job’.

What­ever in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion they can muster is redi­rected to week­ends, par­ties, hob­bies, and fam­i­lies.

Nowhere is this more ap­par­ent than in West Indies cricket. From all ap­pear­ances, when the team topped the world, it was staffed by play­ers who were paid lit­tle and gave much. Now, play­ers are paid far more, while in re­turn, they seem to give as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. Painful, heart­break­ing per­for­mance is only punc­tu­ated by the oc­ca­sional mir­a­cle.


Each com­pany is dif­fer­ent, but most treat em­ploy­ees like kids, ig­nor­ing the in­ter­nal bat­tle be­tween the two kinds of mo­ti­va­tion.

The so­lu­tion isn’t to ‘treat them like adults’ in a cur­sory man­ner. In­stead, your com­pany could help em­ploy­ees deepen their self-aware­ness of what mo­ti­vates them and why. They can also learn how to dis­en­tan­gle their think­ing so that dis­em­pow­er­ing, tempt­ing but extrinsic thoughts don’t end up in dis­as­ter.

The old man won the bat­tle be­cause he was wise. How­ever, this wis­dom is not lim­ited to the story’s trick­ery. It can also be used to make peo­ple strong so they gain more of what they want in life. For most, this hap­pens to in­clude a healthy bot­tom line. As a man­ager, you may need to up­date your men­tal mod­els to dis­cover why in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion has been lost and how it can be re­stored.


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