Motivating Employees is Pretentious

People honestly believe they have the ability to motivate others. That’s always sounded pretentious to me. But, successful training firms have thrived on this belief and have sold training to many employers to teach their supervisors the motivational techniques that employers think their supervisors need to succeed. Employers have also spent hundreds of thousands of training dollars on this notion but, ironically, aren’t these training firms actually inspiring employers to spend by using their fears of supervisory failure to motivate them into action?

Humans are motivated in two ways, extrinsically and intrinsically. For example, paychecks are a great extrinsic method to “motivate” employees to come to work but even paychecks don’t always get people to work nor do they work for every other behavior desired by the employer! Employers have been notorious over the years for using money as an extrinsic way to inspire employees. But, truth-be-told, money can only go so far to inspire people who want things like time with their families, recognition for their contributions in the workplace, professional growth, and the like.

How can anyone honestly believe they’re able to teach people to motivate others? Motivation is more about learning what inspires our own selves. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is often quite different for each of us.

Intrinsic methods require one to accept that humans are internally driven by their needs, wants and desires. For those who understand this, you will also agree that motivation comes from within each employee and that it’s really up to the supervisor to create opportunities that inspire employees to discover aspects of their work that satisfy their own intrinsic needs, wants and desires. And, that means that employees motivate themselves.

Being an effective supervisor takes a lot of hard work! Many people mistakenly believe they are responsible for motivating employees, organizations, or any group of people with whom they work. In actuality, what they have actually done is figured out what inspires the people they hope to engage, and then they use their positions to create the opportunities that will best offer them a chance to trigger the desired behaviors they seek. If those opportunities inspire employees to act, it’s because they see that they can satisfy their intrinsic needs, wants, or desires by taking such actions.

One must be intrinsically motivated to be a good supervisor. Otherwise, the extrinsic reasons for pursuing this role will not return value to the employer. A leadership motivation assessment can help people find out if they have the natural skills or the ability to learn what it takes to be good. Wouldn’t you agree that good supervisors actually “inspire” employees to act rather than “motivate” them to perform?

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Michele Costanza

I think it depends on the desired outcome. To me, knowledge sharing is voluntary and difficult to motivate people to share with extrinsic rewards. How does management know how much tacit knowledge an employee has stored in her head?

On the other hand, in sales, I remember from grade school how motivated I felt to sell a lot of World’s Finest chocolate candy bars, only to earn a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo. I think the grand prize was a bicycle.

How many school kids who would stand outside in inclement weather or who used to go door-to-door selling those candy bars start to lose their motivation when year after year the grand prize goes to the same kid who has parents hocking those candy bars at work for them?

Management needs to be careful how extrinsic motivators are used. Dangle the one bicycle and only give out mostly yo-yo’s and people catch on eventually.

Ed Albetski

I agree with your semantics. In my lexicon there are only two “motivations”: the carrot and the stick. Everything else is really inspirational. In my experience motivational consultants want to charge to tell you what you all ready know…

Doris Tirone

Nice example, Michelle! I couldn’t agree with you more! Extrinsic motivators only go so far to satisfy employees. Employees are most often mreached by satisfying their own intrinsic motivators.

Mark Hammer

One would assume that at the point of selection/hire, one picks people wisely, and that if the job, working conditions, role, and challenges are exactly as depicted, and the employee didn’t lie to themselves or to you, then they enter the job motivated. From that point, all the manager/leader can do is maintain supports in place, or undermine the employee’s motivation. So, from that perspective, managers CAN influence employee motivation, though I would maintain principally in a negative manner. The challenge for many supervisors and managers is to figure how to stay clear of the many numerous ways of demotivating employees. And that is what a skillful and capable leader does – stay away from the landmines.

Personally, I find far too many theories of management and employee motivation completely ignore the “before” (recruitment, assessment and selection), and focus exclusively on the “after”. Not that they should ignore the “after”, but the basic premise is that you hired the right people in the first place. If you don’t know how to pick ’em, there isn’t a whole helluva lot you can do to fix ’em after the fact. And if you DO know how to pick ’em, you don’t have to engage in special handstands or cartwheels to maintain that merit and motivation. All you have to do is live up to what you promised them when they came in. Just make sure what you promise is realistic.

In the meantime, I encourage one and all to take a gander at self-determination theory, and what it can teach you about supporting and sustaining employees’ self-generated motivation.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Good supervisors tap into your natural skills and harness them

They also tell you nicely when you have salad in your teeth.

Matthew Goolsby

I’ve often wondered what separates good coaches from bad ones in sports. The common thread that seems to be prevalent is the willingness to allow individuals to grow at their own pace. We can set up expectations, assessments, and tools that may portray some aspect of a person’s innate ability, but what will cause them to excel? Will it be the environment, the colleagues they have, the support?

In terms of a workplace situation, there are several factors at work:

1. Recognition
2. Job challenge
3. Managerial and colleague support
4. Culture and work environment.

It’s still hard to say how well or not a person is going to work out. But, they can be inspired when good examples are set.

Cynthia Burke

Interesting article. It’s caused me to rethink employee motivation. Also, the link to Mind Tools is helpful.

Dick Davies

People want to do a good job. When a management structure stands in the way, people are motivated when a supervisor removes the barrier to do the work.

Stephanie Ambrose

I agree Dick. People do want to do a good job and receive recognition/reward for a job well done. Good leaders understand what motivates each member of their team and are able to motvate and provide feedback/recognoition in a way that matters to the individual. A strong management structure enables leadership to manage people as individuals.

Joshua joseph

“When a management structure stands in the way, people are motivated when a supervisor removes the barriers to do the work.”

Here’s a great summary of a recent study in HBR that shows why this is much more than one person’s good observation/experience:

Doris Tirone

Thanks for posting the add-on info from HBR, Josh! It’s so true … when managers “create a culture of helpfulness”, the environment they create (which is motivational) inspires employees to perform well.


Great book by Daniel Pink “Drive” on subject. Talks a lot about intrinsic motivators.

My general feeling is people want to work on meaningful projects that are going somewhere and want to feel that their efforts are valuable