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The GREAT MFL DEBATE – Part 1: A Brief History of Motivation

In Leadership

By Lisa Harrison

This is part one of a two part series. You can find part two here.

I’ve been musing on how leaders and managers can find a balance of emotional and relationship connection with their team members, and keep focus on the tasks to be done to meet the workplace outcomes. Like a pendulum swings back and forth, so does the thinking around how much personal connection is enough, and how much is too much. Not surprising for me to be riffing on that theme, as we are excited about exploring this topic at our upcoming client breakfasts, The Great MFL Debate. As it’s a debate, I’d rather ask provocative questions than present a position. This first article I’m going way back to start from the dawn of time, and look at the history of development of a couple of motivation theories. In the next article, I am going to explore whether we have gone way too far in pandering to employees. Let’s open the discussion, I look forward to your response. And look forward to seeing you at the breakfast if you can make it.

In the Beginning there was Theory X/Theory Y

McGregor’s famous Theory X and Theory Y of Management introduced us to two camps of management, with different assumptions giving rise to different actions for supervision and motivation. In case you are not familiar with McGregor’s model, the next section is a very brief summary.

The two styles use different assumptions of human motivation and choose leadership actions based on those assumptions. Theory X management assumes that people are primarily motivated by the money, and therefore will do the minimum they can get away with while still being paid. Thus the appropriate management style is Authoritarian, i.e. highly directive with close supervision. Theory Y takes the view that people get satisfaction from achievement and self-actualising through their work, and if they are given autonomy and responsibility, they will rise to the challenge of high performance. Thus the choice of management style is Participative, and looks to coach and encourage self-motivated performance.

The Theory Y camp could argue that the Theory X camp are in danger of micro-managing, and will spend their time trying to ‘catch’ employees slacking off; in fact when I think of Theory X, I think of those old movies from the 1950s and 1960s where the boss walks between desks neatly in rows like an exam, every desk with an adding machine and a worker with their head down. Meanwhile the Theory X camp could argue that the Theory Y people are believing the psycho-babble, taking their eye off the ball of how to efficiently achieve the company or organisational goals, and instead spending too much energy keeping their people happy. In danger of workutainment?

What happened next?

McGregor never actually posited that one theory was better than the other, but most of us have leapt onto the Theory Y wagon and ridden off into the sunset believing we’ve found the ‘true path’. I’m most certainly a member of the Theory Y fan club. And of Daniel Pink’s work, which took us another step further. Pink’s book ‘Drive’ used the Theory Y paradigm of intrinsic motivators to introduce his three key drivers of motivation and thus performance: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Motivation 3.0. This dovetails nicely with the Theory Y, as he underlines how most business leader behaviours is misguided. Or perhaps we should say simplistic.

Extrinsic rewards and punishments can be very effective for a simple, linear, skill-based work task, but once we are moving into cognitive tasks, or even further into complex thinking such as innovation, creativity and higher-order thinking, this reward/punishment approach is not effective. In fact it can be counter-productive, having a negative net effect on performance: in several replicated empirical experiments, including by the US Federal Reserve and various universities, people were asked to perform a task, and financially incentivised to do so; one group would be offered a small incentive, one group a medium sized incentive, and the third a large incentive. While it was surprising that people offered the medium level of monetary reward did no better than the smallest level, it was amazing that people on the largest incentive for performance actually performed worse than either of the other groups. In every experiment, these results were repeated.

So Pink points us, again, to intrinsic motivation, using examples like Wikipedia to underpin that human effort is most successfully self-motivated.

Did we live happily ever after?

So we all said, ‘Thank you Douglas McGregor and Daniel Pink – love your work, great to have you on the set.’ And we all rode off into the sunset believing we had found the keys to motivating people in the workplace. Just get to know people, really know them, create an emotional connection that builds a strong and open supportive relationship, find out what drives them, encourage them to take ownership and responsibility for the efforts and their results, position yourself as coach not master.

But have we actually found the sweet spot? With any reversal of direction, it’s possible for the pendulum swing to go too far in the other direction. How much do we need to know about people, how strongly do we have to care about the minutiae of their lives?

In part 2 of this blog, I’ll explore whether we have gone too far in focussing on getting to know our team members’ individual intrinsic needs, wants and motivators. And we’d love to hear your comments below. How do you approach motivating your team members? And how does your line manager motivate you? Are you strategic about your approach, and do you use the work of thinkers like McGregor and Pink? How effective are your strategies?

This blog is an excerpt from our latest eBook, ‘The Emotional Intelligence Playbook’, which can be downloaded by clicking the link below.

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