Motivation - A New Look

If there is one topic which grabs the attention of people who are responsible for getting things done, it is motivation! Although to be truthful, most of these people are not really interested in motivating others, according to the usual interpretation of the term, they are primarily interested in getting the particular task at hand done. Motivation is defined as an internal process. "Motivation is defined as: those psychological processes that cause the arousal, direction and persistence of voluntary ations that are goal directed."1 So if they are not really interested in motivation, what are they interested in? In a word: movement! They really do not care how people feel about what they are doing, they only care that the task at hand gets done.

Hertzberg understood this process very well. In his well known article "One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?"2 he describes this exact issue. He points out that the simplest, most practical and fastest method of getting things done is KITA (a kick in the pants). In fact he goes into quite a bit of detail about the various types of KITA that have been perfected over the decades. Starting with Negative Physical KITA he points out that although it is effective and gets results quickly it has the following unfortunate side effects.

  • It is inelegant.
  • It contradicts the precious image of benevolence that most organizations cherish.
  • Since it is a physical attack, it directly stimulate the autonomic nervous system, and this often results in an automatic reaction: the employee kicks back.
For these reasons negative physical KITA has fallen out of favour. However the psychologist has galloped to the resscue of those in need of fast, sure and effective results with a new variation of KITA: Negative Psychological KITA!

This new form of KITA has numerous advantages.

  • The cruelty is not visible.
  • Since it tends to inhibit the higher cortical centers of the brain there is a reduced probability of pyhsical reaction.
  • Since the number of psychological pains a person can feel is almost infinite, there are numerous possible avenues of attack.
  • The person administering the kick can let the system do the work rather than administering it directly. They thus appear to remain above it all.
  • People who practice negative psychological KITA tend to get some ego satisfaction, whereas pysically drawing blood may seem abhorent to them.
  • If the recipient does complain, they can always be accused of being paranoid since there is no tangible evidence of an actual attack.
However, there is no motivation in this form of KITA either. The receipient normally does move, however it is the person who administers the KITA who is motivated, not the recipient of the KITA!

As our society has undergone repeated periods of enlightenment (presumably) over the last century, another suggestion has been made. How about offering a carrot instead of using a stick. So is born Positive KITA. The overwhelming view of many, people and business people in particular, is that this is motivation. However, we have again merely changed tatics. Instead of pushing, we are now pulling. The recipient is still moving in response to our action. They are not motivated, they are reacting to a stimulous. Hertzberg makes this clear with two examples. While a person may train their dog with negative physical KITA - a newspaper; after the training is finished one uses treats, rewards, incentives - Positive KITA instead of negative KITA. All this notwithstanding, if I push (kick), or pull (rewards) it is I who am motivated and the dog who moves. Hertzberg then likens negative KITA to rape and positive KITA to seduction. If rape is terrible, seduction is much worse because we have cooperated in our own downfall. So why is it so popular? - Tradition, and after all why kick someone when you can get them to kick themself?

So why is this important? There are two reasons. The first is illustrated by a story told by Robin Williams about how she learned the importance of naming things.
“Many years ago I received a tree identification book for Christmas. I was at my parent’s home, and after all the gifts had been opened I decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighbourhood. Before I went out, I read through part of the book. The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it took only two clues to identify it. Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and I looked at that picture and said to myself, “Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.” So I took my book and went outside. My parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. I had lived in that house for thirteen years, and I had never seen a Joshua tree. I took a walk around the block, and there must have been a sale at the nursery when everyone was landscaping their new homes – at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And I had never seen one before! Once I was conscious of the tree, once I could name it, I saw it everywhere. Which is exactly the point. Once you can name something, you are conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.” 3
It is important to be able to name our concepts. It is essential to identifying them, understanding them and using them effectively.

The second point becomes clear when considering some advice I received as a young man. The finer the degree of distinction in your terminology, the deeper will be your understanding of the concept and all related phenomena. If motivation as a concept seems muddy, and it is to most people, then separating it into two concepts: Motivation and Movement helps clarify what is going on. Most business people are not at all concerned with motivation. They are only concerned with movement. This finer distinction enables us to better understand the concepts. There are two concepts here not just one. Knowing this enables us to make certain observations which will allow us to separate the concepts and make better use of the new distinction we have just made.

  • Motivation takes more time to create if it can be created at all.
  • Motivation contains its own initiating stimulous. It is self starting and possibly self sustaining.
  • Movement can be created quickly.
  • Movement requires the administration of an initiating stimulous.
Notice there seem to be two critical differences between the concepts: time to initiate, and the source of the stimulous. If something needs to be done in a hurry, it is hard to beat movement. However, if we want an activity to run unattended, movement will be insufficient. If we want quick action then Movement would seem to be the way to go but we should not fool ourselves into thinking we have created any motivation whatsoever.

If we want our unit to run mostly unattended then we need to take the time to create an atmosphere in which our agents (employees) can and do motivate themselves. This is much more difficult and takes much longer but the effects last longer and can become self-sustaining!

  1. TR Mitchell, "Motivation: New Directions for Theory, Research, and PRactice." Academy of Management Review, Vol 7 (1982): 80-88
  2. Frederick Hertzberg. "One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?" Harvard Business Review (January-February 1968)}
  3. Robin Williams The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Peach Pit Press Berkeley California, 1994, p. 13.



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