pick up a best selling book intended to inspire and the author promises a proven formula, instant results, or some secret solution they are going to share with you. Ultimately, it comes down to the author saying, “This is what works for me and if you do exactly as I do then you too will be motivated.” It does tend to inspire initially, especially after handing over a bit of cash. You may not realize it, but you also hand over your motivational power as you try to follow the script they mandate.
In organizations, leaders often make a similar error either by believing they are the motivational role model or by hiring a consultant with a “proven” motivational formula. Most times this proof is a list of companies the consultant has worked with, especially any company following the latest trends. The consultant is good at networking, but motivational science is nowhere to be found.
The individual spends $12.99 to buy Tony Robbins latest creation while organizations spend thousands to bring in consultants. Unfortunately…or maybe fortunately…the science of motivation demonstrates time and again what works for Tony won’t work for you and what may work in another organization will not necessarily work in your organization.
The bottom line, beware of anyone selling a secret formula for motivational success.
#2 Motivational Inconsistency: A huge red flag that is easy to spot is the difference between words and action. Regardless of what a person says they want to accomplish, their behaviors tell the motivational truth. A question to ask, “Is the motivational message consistent with actual behaviors?” If employees see a leader saying one thing, but doing another it will quickly sap any motivational energy.
Motivational inconsistency tends to create a sense of confusion and frustration in employees as they cannot be certain of the actual direction they are suppose to take and without clarity of direction, intensity of effort wanes. This is a bad mix that often results in high turnover and many open positions. If you are looking to work for a motivated team or organization, ask about their vision and mission and then compare that message to what they are actually doing.
A good example of motivational inconsistency is the Sierra Club, an organization with a long standing history of championing environmental causes. But are the actions of the Sierra Club consistent with their message? The current leadership is now using membership fees and donations intended to plant trees and conserve natural resources to pursue a range of social justice issues, from transgender bathrooms to pro-choice rights for women. Regardless of your personal beliefs on these social issues, the leadership of the Sierra Club has gone off track. It is not a place to work if you expect the motivational message to be aligned with their actions.
#3 Ambiguous Expectations: One of my favorite aspects of the book Motivational Murder, is asking your supervisor the question, “How can I exceed expectations?” When I was managing fire inspectors and dispatchers in Las Vegas, each year I had to come up with a number of goals that would be evaluated for success. It never occurred to me to ask how I could actually exceed expectations. Instead, my boss and I would review my goals every three months and agree on my progress thus far and what I needed to work on the next quarter in order to meet expectations. It wasn’t a horrible system…reflecting back, at least we had a system and that is the motivational red flag or takeaway, that one way to kill motivation is when employees are not clear of what is expected of them.
Solid indicators of ambiguous expectations are unspecified goals, one-way or top-down communication, and no way that an employee can exceed expectations. Leaders need to use objective standards that can be communicated to employees and use these standards along with two-way communication to gain valuable feedback that is ongoing. I encourage both employees and those in a leadership role to keep a log or journal that is used to track progress on a regular basis. While as a manager I was fortunate to receive feedback from my boss a minimum of quarterly, my direct reports were not so lucky. While I provided informal feedback frequently, the system in our organization that impacted an employees career path was only received formally during their annual performance review.
#4 Motivation Equality: This motivational killer is similar to believing motivation can be mandated. The main difference is instead of believing if people follow a secret formula they will be motivated, it is believing that because you are motivated by money or social recognition that everyone else is also motivated by money or social recognition. While it is easier to assign motivational differences between groups, e.g. the terrorist has different motives than priest, we tend to believe people similar to ourselves, those working in the cubicle or office next door most certainly have similar motives. We see our next door neighbor or family member as having similar motives, but similar does not mean equal. What science has shown is there are actually larger differences in motivational direction within groups than between groups.
The leadership mistake is in assuming motivational equality within groups, disregarding cultural differences and using labels to group people as being motivationally equivalent. It is saying all terrorists have the same motivation and all priests have the same motivation. At an organizational level it assumes all those working in the sales department are motivated by money, while everyone working in human resources is motivated by social recognition.
#5 One Way Accountability: The boss has the power to fire and hire employees, but the opposite does not hold true, generally speaking. In the modern workforce there are unions to protect employees and larger organizations have human resources to help with any abuse of power, but the reality is that by design a boss is not accountable to their employees. This lack of accountability is a subtle motivational killer, because many times a leader doesn’t recognize the importance of shared accountability in helping maintain motivation.
Good indicators of one way accountability include power-based leadership, autocratic decision making, and having strategic but not tactical plans. A good question to ask is to what extent employees are included in the decision-making process? This does not mean decisions related to their craft or skillset, but decisions that impact the overall mission or strategic direction of the team or department. Another question to ask is the extent to which employees can be successful in the absence of leadership? If a leader believes they cannot take a vacation or they must check their email constantly to ensure a smooth operation, more than likely the motivational killer of one way accountability has reared it’s ugly head.
#6 Using Pressure to Motivate: There are overt ways we use pressure in an effort to motivate an individual and then there are covert ways…ways which most often we are unaware we are using. Regardless if it is overt or covert, pressure has been demonstrated time and again in studies on motivation to be a killer. What is interesting is how the myth that pressure can motivate persists as college students around the globe wait until the night before the exam to open a book, believing that when they “cram” for the test it helps them get a better grade. In the workforce, well intentioned leaders often set arbitrary deadlines believing it will help motivate the team and ensure completion of a project on schedule. This is seemingly reinforced by scientifically supported evidence that achieving a goal is more likely when it is time bound. While this may be true, there is a difference between time bound based on some objective need verses an arbitrary date used as an artificial way to “stay on track”.
Unlike the overt ways we knowingly create pressure, there are also subtle ways. While I am personally not a fan of the term “micro aggression”, it is useful in discussing pressures we most often unknowingly inflict. A great example is being even a few seconds late for a meeting or during the meeting looking at your watch. Without saying a word, you are clearly indicating to the other person you don’t have time for them. When I first became a manager, my desk was set up so that the back of my computer screen faced the entrance to my office. When an employee came in to discuss an issue, it was sometimes hard to break away or not glance at the screen when my attention should be focused on the person in front of me. Whether it was an open email I was trying to finish or something that would pop up, it was a distraction that was hard to ignore. In order to not be distracted, I soon moved my computer to the side so that when an employee entered and I turned to greet them I could no longer see the screen. It was a small change, but like not looking at a watch during a meeting it was an important way to avoid committing motivational murder.
#7 Organizational Misalignment: This last red flag is more strategic than the previous motivational killers. Still, whether you are a leader or a prospective employee there is an important motivational takeaway. An organization is a system, consisting of various departments and teams of individuals within those departments. The degree to which these different groups are in alignment has a big impact on motivation. If engineering is not aligned with sales and sales is not aligned with human resources or the executive team, this can have a ripple effect where motivation is impacted across the organization.
Some good indicators an organization has significant misalignment is abbreviated job interviews, lack of a formal compensation plan and/or an unspecified career path. These indicators demonstrate a lack of communication across divisions or departments and without good communication you cannot expect alignment.
A Final Note
"Motivational Murder: The Seven Worst Mistakes Leaders Make" has much more to offer than my brief review. In fact, don’t let my interpretation stop you from forming your own opinions. While having the privilege to have survived long enough in the workforce to see each of these mistakes made repeatedly, including times when I made such mistakes, the lessons that you takeaway from the book will certainly be slightly different than me.
Please share this review and if you have any questions about my opinion, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can reach out directly to the author, Dr. Hoffman at email@example.com.
You can also check out Dr. Hoffman's upcoming book "Hack Your Motivation" by visiting his webpage.
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.