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Are You Spending Too Much Time on Employee Motivation?

There seems to be much attention currently in the business press on employee motivation. Rightfully so given the recent data that suggests that fewer than 20% of employees feel “engaged” in their work. That’s a staggering statistic.

However, one of the biggest mistakes I see leaders make in small companies is that they pay entirely too much time on employee motivation and not nearly enough time on employee demotivation. Have you ever felt demotivated at work? Uninspired? Frustrated?

One of the basic tenets of human psychology is that before a person can feel motivated, we must first eliminate or at least significantly reduce the demotivators impacting that person’s attitude.

Imagine HR somehow forgot to input your payroll for this pay period and you will not receive a paycheck on Friday like everyone else. How do you feel? Not very good I imagine. Now your boss comes around and decides it’s time for a motivational session. A pep talk. A big hug. Some time off.

Now how do you feel? Any better? Not likely. Until you get that paycheck, any attempt to be motivated will likely fail. Why? Before we can feel motivated, we must first eliminate the demotivators. Your boss is much better off doing somersaults to get you that paycheck ASAP.

What are examples of demotivators? Here are several:

#1. Money. Or lack of. Money will rarely if ever be a motivator. How excited do you or your employees get when they get paid? Unless, they have an urgent need for that money, it’s not a motivating experience. We need a certain amount and than we are satisfied. In the United States, the average person needs approximately $75,000 and their financial needs are met. If we are not getting what we need or believe is fair, we will than feel demotivated.

#2. Technology. How do you feel when your computer turns on each morning? Excited? Highly charged? Motivated? Most people don’t. We expect the darn thing to work. And if it doesn’t? Now we are upset. Highly demotivated. Forgot about work, I’m ready to quit. Very rarely will technology serve as a motivator. The key is to make sure it works and not allow it to become a demotivator. 

#3. Work environment. Uncomfortable chair. Dim lights. Too hot. Too cold. Too much noise. Not enough noise. The list goes on. The leader’s job is to create a work environment that allows employees to perform at their highest level. If the environment is not right, employee motivation plummets. It’s a nosedive. Such simple things can cause such a low level of demotivating that no effort to otherwise please them can possibly overcome these negative feelings.

Action item: Take time this week to take an inventory of all of the demotivators your employees are experiencing in your company. What’s upsetting them? What’s causing them the most frustration? Work to eliminate these negative factors as soon as possible and then you will be ready to focus your attention on their motivation.

“Think Like a Freak”, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

My major in college was economics. I chose this major simply by process of elimination. I didn’t like Math, Science, English, or History. I also had several friends that were Econ majors and they said it was easier. I am not proud of this thought process. However, it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Studying Economics gave me a frame of reference for understanding the world around me that I would never have gotten otherwise. Supply & demand. Pricing decisions. Making some sense of world economics.

I have been reminded of my studies in Economics each time I have read best-selling authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s best-selling books starting with “Freakonomics”. In each book, the authors take a variety of topics, from business to politics to social, and debunk many of the myths we have been lead to believe about that particular subject. They combine solid economic research with good stories and a healthy dose of humor to make the reading as good as it gets.

Levitt and Dubner’s newest book is “Think Like a Freak“. It has already hit the New York Times best-seller list. The essence of the book is to help the reader think more logically and objectively about the many issues we face each day in business and our personal lives. The book provides the reader an excellent framework for solving problems and making tough decisions.

Several of my favorite takeaways from the book include:

* The importance of saying “I don’t know” when I am asked something that I am clueless about. (way too often)

* The single most common cause of suicide in this country is the “no one left to blame” syndrome most prevalent among people with a higher quality of life and it is an epidemic in this country today.

* In the U.S. we throw away 40% of the food we buy. That’s a startling fact given the number of people who starve each day.

* It’s often helpful to have the mentality of an eight-year-old. It starts, according to the authors, by ‘thinking small”. Eight-year-olds don’t worry nearly as much as adults if they don’t know the answer to a question or a problem. They are also more prone to ask small questions than larger questions which are easier to answer and act on. Children are also far less afraid of the obvious are much harder to deceive.

* The power of incentives. Good ones and bad ones. Big and small. Which ones work best?

* The secret to persuasion is story-telling. How compelling are your stories?

* There is an upside to quiting. Is there something you should put an end to today?

And there are many more. Like their previous books, I was fascinated by this book. I am also a regular listener to their very popular weekly podcasts.

“Think Like a Freak” is a winner. I highly recommend the book to all small business owners and operators.

How to Persuade Others with the Right Questions: Jedi Mind Tricks from Daniel H. Pink

How often are you in a position to try to persuade someone to act?

One of my favorite authors is Daniel Pink. Several best-selling books including “Drive”, “To Sell is Human” and “Free Agent Nation”. He recently posted a brief four (4) minute video titled “How To Persuade Others With the Right Questions”. Very simple technique that involves two easy questions and than some follow-up. Try this with (not on) your direct reports, customers, and even your kids.


Long ago lived a seaman named Captain Bravo. He was a manly man who showed no fear in facing his enemies. One day, while sailing the seven seas, a look-out spotted a pirate ship and the crew became frantic. Captain Bravo bellowed, ”Bring me my Red Shirt.” The First Mate quickly retrieved the captain’s red shirt and whilst wearing the bright red frock he led his men into battle and defeated the pirates.

Later on that day, the look-out spotted not one, but two pirate ships. The captain again called for his red shirt and once again, though the fighting was fierce, he was victorious over the two ships. That evening, all the men sat around on the deck recounting the day’s triumphs and one of the them asked the captain, ”Sir, why do you call for your red shirt before battle? The captain replied, ”If I am wounded in the attack, the shirt will not show my blood and thus, you men will continue to fight, unafraid.”

All of the men sat in silence and marveled at the courage of such a manly man as Captain Bravo. As dawn came the next morning, the look-out spotted not one, not two, but TEN pirates ships approaching from the far horizon. The crew stared at the captain and waited for his usual reply.

Captain Bravo calmly shouted, ”Get me my brown pants.”