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By Lauren Keller Johnson

Lauren Keller Johnson is a freelance writer living in Harvard, MA

As a manager, one of your most vital responsibilities is motivating your people—inspiring them to give their best on the job, including their creativity, devotion, and energy. When your employees are motivated, they work together to generate the results your organization needs—whether it’s stronger sales, happier customers or clients, greater market share, or some other critical goal.

But most managers stumble in their efforts to motivate employees. That’s because they rely on traditional carrot-and-stick motivation techniques such as pay raises and threats, says Susan Fowler in her book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does.

Such techniques may push your people to do whatever it takes get the “carrot” or avoid the “stick” in the short-term—but their motivation will evaporate soon after. Why? Carrots and sticks are external motivators—things that employees have no control over.

To gain true—and enduring—motivation from your team members, you need to tap into their internal motivation in a way that meets some deep psychological needs. Those needs include autonomy (power of choice), relatedness (human connection), and competence (skill and ability): what Fowler calls ARC. When your people meet their ARC needs, they gain a profound sense of purpose and fulfillment in their jobs. Their engagement and productivity climb to new heights—and remain there.

Yet many managers have no idea how to motivate their people in this way. Why? They’ve fallen victim to common myths about workplace motivation—such as “The purpose of business is to make a profit” and “The only thing that matters in business is results.” Such myths blind managers to what does and doesn’t work in employee motivation. As a result, they act in counterproductive ways, even while believing they’re doing the right thing.

If you haven’t examined your own beliefs about motivating others, you could be sabotaging efforts to motivate your team. To escape this situation, you may have to adopt behaviors that feel counterintuitive. But the payoff will be well worth the investment.

With that in mind, let’s examine and dispel one particularly stubborn motivation myth.

The purpose of business is not to make a profit

If you (like most managers) believe that the purpose of business is to make a profit, you likely focus on business results that can be quantified, can be delivered in the short term, and that go straight to your company’s bottom line, says Fowler.

Moreover, you probably use pressure as a means to push people to achieve those results. Maybe you punish them if they fail to deliver. Or perhaps you even view—and treat—them as tireless machines. All of these practices are decidedly demotivating to the individuals you inflict them on.

Fowler suggests another way to look at the purpose of business: Profit is the result of fulfilling the real purpose of business—which is to serve. Sure, a business must make a profit to survive. But it makes no sense to conclude that profit is therefore its purpose. That’s like saying that just because you need air and food to survive, the purpose of your life is to breathe and eat.

So try recasting the myth as follows:

 “The purpose of a business is to serve its people and its customers. Profit is a byproduct of doing both of these well.”

What does all this mean in practical terms? Fowler recommends replacing practices aligned to profit motivation with those aligned to service motivation. For example:

  • Instead of driving profit at the expense of people, give your employees a meaningful sense of purpose in their work. For instance, explain to them how their work translates into the creation of products that improve customers’ lives.
  • Instead of punishing people if they don’t produce profit-related results, train them to better serve their internal or external customers—including how to discover customers’ needs or resolve conflicts with customers.
  • Instead of treating your people as tireless machines, clear time for them to take on inherently motivating projects—such as “stretch” assignments.

Learn more

Want to understand and throw away additional myths about motivation? Read Chapter 6: Rethinking Five Beliefs That Erode Workplace Motivation in Susan Fowler’s book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does. In this chapter, you’ll discover four additional myths and best practices for combating them.



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