Motive for Behavior_17315709_XS - CPreviously, we briefly looked at several common theories on human motivation. This discussion will continue the discussion on motivation and focus primarily on a process that enables managers to not only understand motivation in the workplace, but also increase employee initiative, energy and excitement.  From a simplified perspective, motivation can be viewed as a balance scale with motive on one side and action or behavior on the other. In order to move a two-pound behavior, a two-pound (or greater) motive is necessary. Behaviors, like motives, have different weights or difficulties; thus a light motive is unlikely to sufficiently move a heavy (difficult) behavior. And a heavy motivator can easily move a light (easy) behavior.

For example, the last time an employee was asked to clean and organize a dirty, dark and dingy storage area the employee’s reaction was, “Oh no, why me? Cleaning that storage room is the worst possible of all jobs I could get. Why don’t you pick on somebody else this time?”

Placing this situation on the balance scale, the employee’s perception of the behaviors required to clean the storage room weighed 10 pounds, and the motive and benefits supplied in the manager’s request weighed one pound. That’s why the employee’s reaction was, “Why me?”

Now, several months later, the same manager is about to ask the same employee to once again clean the messy storage room. There are four basic motives the manager could place on the motive side of the balance scale. They are: fear, incentive, guilt and self. Following are statements describing the first three motives.


“I’m sick and tired of your complaining. If you know what’s good for you, and you want to keep your job, then clean that room. And I don’t want to hear any more excuses. Just do it now!”


“Hey, why don’t you clean the storage room this afternoon? If you’ll do it for me, I’ll bring you a Coke and a couple of donuts for your afternoon break. And don’t forget tomorrow is payday.”

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“I know you don’t like to clean the storage room, but it’s got to be done. And if you don’t clean it we won’t be able to sell anything that’s in there. Besides, my boss is really upset that it’s so messy and not organized. So if you don’t clean it today, I’ll be in big trouble tomorrow.”

These three motivators are typically imposed on someone, thus they are called extrinsic, meaning they originate from outside the person. The problem with extrinsic motivators is that their effect is short-lived. Any effect they might have works for only a few days, perhaps a week at most. Additionally, both fear and guilt are dirty motivators. After a dirty motivator has been used in an attempt to gain action, the relationship between the two parties can be damaged. Thus, even though a dirty motivator might seemingly accomplish its purpose in the short-term, in the long run the residual or collateral damage to the relationship may never be overcome,

If those disadvantages aren’t enough, there is another problem with extrinsic motivators. Whatever amount, quantity, or intensity of an extrinsic motivator is used to gain action today, that amount is likely not to be enough to repeat the same action tomorrow. In other words, if a manager bribes an employee with a cash incentive of X, it may take 2X to get a similar response in a successive attempt. In the case of the messy storeroom, if the manager had initially told the reluctant employee that there was a $25.00 cash bonus to clean the room, then on the second request it could take $50.00 to gain a similar amount of motivation. Likewise, if fear is used as the motivator today, then even more fear will be necessary tomorrow for a similar response. Continued use of extrinsic motivators requires an escalating proportion of motivation. This can obviously be incredibly damaging and/or expensive. (On a personal note, all child abuse has its origins in fear motivation. The process begins by using a little fear, moves on to substantial fear, and then when that finally doesn’t work, violence is the only way to gain action.)


The fourth type of motivator that can be placed on the balance scale is intrinsic. It’s called intrinsic because the motivation is generated from within the person, rather than being imposed externally from outside. Unlike extrinsic motivators, intrinsic are long-term with the effects lasting weeks, months, years and in some cases even a lifetime. Additionally, intrinsic motivation is clean; there is no unwanted baggage as in extrinsic.

So what are these intrinsic motivators that have so much promise? Actually, almost anything that does not fit into the categories of fear, incentive or guilt is probably an intrinsic motivator. They are things like pride, respect, appreciation, challenge, making a difference in someone’s life, and achieving a goal. Although I’ve identified about eighty intrinsic motivators, there must be hundreds. Any positive influence that comes from within, lasts longer than a few weeks, and doesn’t leave emotional baggage is probably an intrinsic motivator.

Each person acquires through his or her experiences in life a set of intrinsic motivators unique to that person. The set of intrinsic motivators that energizes one person to action will not likely be exactly the same as those that motivate another person. Although I believe that there are some universal intrinsic motivators such as appreciation and respect, the thirty or forty specific items that motivate each person are different. It’s both nature and nurture that makes each person unique, even with respect to motivation.

Why I do what I do

People do not really understand themselves until they have compiled a specific written list of personal intrinsic motivators. This statement has caused more than one person in my workshops considerable consternation, but nonetheless it’s true. Then, after compiling the list, the items are then divided into three groups: heavy, medium and light motivators. By working through this process people are better able to come into contact with their authentic self. Far too many people live in either a fantasy or dream world that doesn’t bear a resemblance to reality. When a person is able to see what moves him or her to action, I believe that that person will then have a major understanding of whom he or she really is. Because then that person will grasp, “if I know what I know, why do I do what I do?

In the case of the messy storage room, the manager would be wise to apply one or two specific intrinsic motivators that are unique to the employee. It might be challenge, accomplishment, recognition, satisfaction, being in charge, or perhaps praise. By using these motivators the manager might find that the employee’s efforts to keep the room clean extend well beyond the immediate assignment.


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About the Author
Richard Williams, Ph.D.
Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.

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