Myths of Modern Management: Motivation

The danger of modern management is that it pushes us over the edge. We become extremely motivated to do more and run faster. But when we don’t succeed in achieving our goals we feel like there is something wrong with us, and that we should speak out, pull ourselves together, or run even faster.

In a time when we measure like never before, it’s a paradox that the biggest danger for an organisation, and its employees, is the modern and well-meaning manager. Coaching and appreciative management, with democracy, equality and a large degree of freedom for employees is not the solution; it’s a source of the problem. At the end of the day, the demand for results is the same as ever, but it has become unclear who is responsible for what, which resources we have at our disposal, and how resources can be suitably managed.

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In many forms modern management, managers are told that they need to correct this by functioning as a kind of extended psychologist for their employees. Today we know that this solution simply worsens problems instead of solving them. When we start soul searching as managers or employees, we focus less on things that actually create sustainable productivity within an organisation.

There is no longer a dialogue about set targets, resources at our disposal, or the way we are being managed and led. This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we need if we are to fix the problems.

When well-meaning managers follow coaching mantras, such as “you have the potential and the talent,” and “you can do whatever you want,” it makes employees happy—until they are back at their desks and realising that nothing has changed. You start to feel like everything is your own fault. It isn’t enough that we support each other psychologically. We also need to support each other professionally, supplying the necessary resources in order to solve and finish tasks properly.

The Motivation Myth

The most widespread myth we hear is probably about the need to set more targets with red, yellow, and green numbers. By doing this, we believe that we will receive the results which we reward. However, that is far from the case. This myth has its roots in the established motivating power of having concrete goals. These goals are in fact so motivating, that if we receive targets without enough influence and resources to reach them, then we will often convince ourselves that we should have done more, before we have even looked at the target’s relevance and demand for resources.

Robert Karasek, an American researcher in work related stress, documented that when demands are high, and influence or resources are low, work becomes dangerous. Yet, this is exactly what characterises middle management tasks, as well as many other general positions—large responsibilities without the influence to match them. If you lower the degree of responsibility, then we often lose the exact factors that make our work meaningful and engaging. It can actually be stressful in itself, knowing that you can lose your responsibility and opportunities to make a difference on a daily basis. There is a clear need to maintain and increase demands, so that our work becomes interesting, developed, and educational. However, we also need to remember that when demands are increased, influence and resources need to match up.

“Instead of chasing simple solutions, we need to prepare and equip each other to be able to handle the complexity of daily life.”

Reward and punishment can contribute towards creating desired behaviour once demands, influence, and resources are balanced. However, it can never create what we actually need: managers and employees who think for themselves, allowing for creativity, innovation, and effective collaboration to flourish. Instead, through reward and punishment, management removes focus from what we do, towards other people’s potential evaluations of what we do. By doing this, important resources are removed from tasks and it contributes to a worsening of results.

So, we don’t receive the behaviour we reward. We receive the behaviour which optimises the chance for reward and a struggle to position one’s results as good, instead of a dialogue about how we can ensure lasting productivity together.

What should we do?

We need to say goodbye to the insultingly simple solutions that experts present to us. The solution is not just five quick tips, or another two-day leadership course. Instead of chasing simple solutions, we need to prepare and equip each other to be able to handle the complexity of daily life. We need to create a culture where we are aware of our own responsibility to do the right thing, while making sure that we take care of our most important resource: each other.

The article is based on Christian Ørsted’s book “Lethal Leadership”.

Translated from Danish by: Synamon Mills 

Christian Ørsted
22 Jul 2014

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