Guest opinion: The best way to invest in staff motivation

Dr Reinhard Sprenger, author of Trust: the best way to manage and of The motivation myth says organisations often squander money on motivation problems instead of investing in managers’ leadership.

Managers who perceive that something is wrong with their teams are often quick to invest in the latest motivation course, seminar or incentive scheme. However, until the stick is removed, the carrot cannot be effective. Organisations too often throw money at motivation problems instead of investing in the leadership capabilities of their managers.

It is a well-known fact that the function of management is to "disturb all the other workers". Naturally, this noble activity is always in the service of such worthy causes as "deployment of strategy, bringing about change or restructuring".

In many ways, management is the very source of the crisis that it attempts to master. But happily, within the majority of organisations there exists an extremely loyal and intelligent will to repair the effects wreaked by increasingly short-lived management methods. The way in which employees work from below, still conspiring to create something sensible from such methods is a minor art in itself.

Many managers, for instance, mistakenly put store in incentive systems when, with the emphasis on lasting performance, not a single study has been carried out that has shown a long-lasting performance increase via these types of rewards. Carrot and stick, bribes and employee-of-the-month awards do not have an important impact on motivation. The principle cause of loss of motivation is employees’ direct superior, not, as is often supposed, salary or other working conditions.

Strong responsible leaders don’t need those incentive systems. If managers fail to lead and encourage employees, then workers’ positive drives are quickly stifled. The direct boss is the number one developer of his or her people, so if they could simply treat their employees in the way that the manager wants workers to treat customers, then the organisation could save most of its marketing costs.

People learn very slowly, if at all. Beneath the behavioural surface is a bedrock of personal traits, basic attitudes, and mental programming, all endowed with enormous inertia. Just as people cannot be brought up to be free – because upbringing always presupposes the withdrawal of freedom – it is impossible to motivate them to do that which should be done of one’s own free will. If anything really needs to be changed here, it is to dismantle the constraints that stop responsibility from being freely assumed.

The desire to change people, which is management’s favourite game, is therefore an unpromising venture. It proceeds according to the absurd motto: "You have to change in order to make things better for me". But people are not trivial machines to be manipulated at the touch of a button. They only change when they want to do so. This does not necessarily exclude any development. The important thing to remember, however, is that relationships function between people as they are, and not as they should be.