Because I have been associated with highly productive and high energy organizations, I am often asked, “How do you motivate people?”

My answer: You can’t motivate someone to do what he or she doesn’t want to do. If you try, you are really trying to “manipulate” them.

There is an old Southern saw that says, “Given the opportunity, people will tend to act in their own self interest. Not given the opportunity, people will STILL tend to act in their own self interest as they understand it.”

Therefore, you can count on people to expend the most energy on those things they see as in their best interest. Ewing Kauffman would often say, “How do we find the things that are in both our best interests? Or, how can we create situations in which it is in your best interest to do what I need you to do?” Douglas McGregor, whose 1960 management classic “The Human Side of Enterprise” became the foundation for much of what we now call “OD”, would have called this “the mutuality of individual and organizational goals.” I have found that Kauffman’s stating this in more human terms is more effective.

The other side of this coin is to be sure that we aren’t doing things that “de-motivate” people or even “punish” them for doing well at the things we need done. For example, early in my own career I was given the assignment of managing the donation campaign for a leading charity in the plant where I worked. I wanted to show my bosses that I could do a good job even though I found the task personally distasteful. I worked hard and the campaign was successful at a record-setting level. My “reward” for this success was getting to manage the campaign again the next year—NOT what I had in mind.

A similar example could be asking for candid questions from the staff only to berate the staff member who has the guts to ask a tough question. Reward systems have their positive and negative sides and not all effects are intentional.

So, if you want to identify the kinds of things that make people feel rewarded or punished, just think back over your own experiences about the times you felt really good OR really bad about your job and what it was that caused those feelings. You will be well on your way to understanding the keys to the motivation question.

Motivation or Manipulation?