Three things about motivating people

One of the most interesting aspects of the Masters’ degree I’m doing is the regular session where each student brings in a challenge they’re facing at work.  In small groups, we try to help them work through these challenges. We use a technique called Action Learning Sets, which is not unlike therapy in that you’re not meant to lead the person to a solution, but give them space to work through it themselves.

It struck me last time that out of five in my group, four students had brought issues that related to people – recruiting people, motivating people or getting people to perform better. (I was the fifth, and the only reason my issue wasn’t about motivating people is because there’s only me in my organisation. Although I can be tough to manage at times….)

There are few things harder, for any business, than keeping people motivated and engaged, or dealing with poor performance, so it’s not that surprising that these problems are particularly intractable. The holy grail for all employers is discretionary effort – the effort that engaged and motivated people put into their work voluntarily, over and above the minimum level required to do their job adequately (“work is contractual, effort is personal”).

Looking at some of the literature, it seems this concept of discretionary effort is becoming more and more important. Researchers such as Yankelovich and Immerwahr (1984) identified a change in the kind of work generally required of people, from jobs that required very little thinking or judgment on the part of the workers (for example factory work)  in the industrial age, to information age jobs. Industrial age jobs don’t require much discretionary effort, while information age jobs require high levels of discretion as well as thinking and decision-making on the part of workers (Miller, 1986). This means that the potential for discretionary effort has never been greater – or more important –  than in modern times.

I’ve come across a few examples recently of organisations trying out different approaches to this problem. For example: Google X, one of the Google octopus’ many arms, is a lab in California where inventors and engineers are encouraged to collaborate on audacious ideas, known as moonshots. At Google X, staff are rewarded for exploring ideas that failed, rather than for success, on the basis that if you only reward success, people won’t take risks or try out innovative approaches. Furthermore, if you don’t like the way your manager is running your section, you are under no obligation to stay – you can up sticks and move to another section without your manager being able to do anything about it.

Similarly, open source software company GitHub runs its projects on an open allocation system. Rather than management telling people which projects to work on, its 175 employees identify their team’s role in achieving the company’s strategic goals, and then work on whichever projects they think would interest them in that context. Because they’ve chosen the project, their interest and motivation levels are likely to be higher than for projects that have been allocated to them by someone else. As their CEO Tom Preston-Warner explains: “what you work on is up to you, within the bounds of what’s important to the company”.

Games developer Valve goes as far as putting wheels on all employees’ desks, partly to make it easy to form project teams that sit together, and partly to underline that employees choose what to work on and how to go about it. The company claims that there are no bosses, and pay is allocated according to a ratings system to which all employees contribute.

Would these approaches work everywhere? Probably not. Will they work for these companies forever? Who knows. But in a week when I’ve been discussing whether in general, underperforming employees lack capabilities, are in the wrong job, or lack strong management, they certainly provide food for thought.

Also published on Medium.