Previous month:
July 2011
Next month:
September 2011

August 2011

Why motivation is NOT often in the work place

It is not an original observation to say that in most work places we look we find that most people are not highly motivated. In many cases they are not motivated at all. They need to work and their commitment to and engagement with their employer extends no further than the next pay cheque. This is not a desirable state of affairs, and there are many reasons for it, but perhaps the most unnoticed aspect of the whole business is how little attention employers pay to the issue. It’s as if most of them live in a world where motivation of staff - and of themselves - is the least important thing, and having the least impact of all on the bottom line. Unfortunately this assumption is wrong, but if we look deeper matters are much worse.

The decision not to consider motivation as part of the business bottom line has profound psychological roots. It’s not just that business owners, directors and executives don’t think about motivation - much - it’s that they can’t. This becomes clear when we look at the four major pillars that underpin any business or organisation for that matter.

First, there is finance - the money! The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that drive the business: return on equity, profit, turnover, cash flow and so on. This is a yes-no situation: either we have the cash flow or turnover or relevant metric, or we don’t. Accountants, usually, supply us with this information. And when the worst occurs, we know that.

This principle also applies to the second pillar, sales and marketing, and also to the third: production and operations. Managers, for example, check on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly basis - how many leads, how many prospects, how many conversions, how many sales and so how much revenue has been generated. Ditto for marketing: the advertising campaign, the web strategy, produces how many enquiries or clicks? And ditto for production: we ask how many widgets this month or how many service calls?

The point being that even when times are bad we know how we are doing. This is because we have Finance, Sales & Marketing, Operations directors keeping tabs on all this productivity and information.

But put another way, when we think about companies, we have these types of directors in the main precisely because they attract the kind of people who are drawn to certainties: the spread sheet full of numbers that tell us where we are. And if we invest in inputs we can measure the outputs, which are usually fairly predictable: for example, for every hundred leads that our marketing produces we convert about five on average into an actual sale.

Notice in this that whether the business or organisation is doing well or badly one thing remains constant in the three dominant areas/pillars of the business: namely, the psychological certainty of knowing where we are, of having the numbers which become our compass through the changing environment. This need for psychological certainty is compelling – it produces emotional security - but has a disastrous side effect: in the fourth area/pillar - the people category (in which leadership, culture, morale and motivation are included) it doesn’t work. As the British scientist Denis Burkitt put it: “Not everything that counts can be counted.”

Specifically, in the areas of people motivation, leadership and culture we find that given in-puts do not necessarily produce predictable outputs. The most frequent and outstanding example of this occurs with money: pay increases often demote staff despite the fact that a wage increase is precisely what they say they want.

The reasons for this are complex; but all MDs, CEOs, and executives will have stories not just of the failure of money to motivate, but the failure of dozens of other initiatives too: be they re-structured flexi-time, increased time off, more training, better social events, environmental improvements, and so on – what would seem obviously a 'good thing' becomes for some reason a cause for disgruntlement.

Thus in the people domain the certainties of numbers gives way to uncertainty, and with that there is the two corresponding phenomena: the rise of ambiguity, and the erosion of control. Most managers – exactly because they have sought to be managers – resent and resist these two tendencies. In fact the best way of dealing with them is ignoring them altogether.

We 'contract' with people (don't we?) to do the work; so, we're paying them, so they should work, shouldn't they? A kind of blind eye approach is adopted in principle, and only when things go seriously wrong – by which I mean the numbers all start going negative – is some attention paid to staff motivation. And usually, in a fairly simplistic way: let's send them on a course or fire them!

So what we have, then, are 4 pillars of an organisation, three of which – Finance, Marketing/Sales, and Operations – produce emotional security in the way they are set up and constructed to be measured. This means that directors and senior managers, by and large, have a massive disposition to want to deal with these areas AND, correspondingly, subconsciously or otherwise, an aversion to actually dealing with the fourth and final pillar on which the other three really depend: the People.

The people pillar, then, concerns itself with all that is not secure! With all that is ambivalent and difficult to quantify. What is it about people that makes them so intractable?

If we think about it, it is because life is really like that. To live is always to be aware of inherent difficulties (including death) whereas human civilisation and mankind's intellect tends to want to mask over that with its certainties and constructions. Thus, profoundly, in dealing with the people pillar ‘management’ is never enough: leadership is required with all that that entails. Leaders – who motivate – are the only ones who can create real value; and that means embracing ambiguity.

Imaginary Beings, Numbers and God

The imagination is one of the most powerful faculties of the mind or indeed of human beings generally. It was the poet W. B. Yeats who said: “The imagination has some way of lighting on the truth which reason has not … and its commandments are the most binding we can ever know.” But then he was a poet, so he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Then again the great scientist Einstein, said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” So you’d think the case was closed; which is to say that imagination is staggeringly important to our life? Yet sadly, very few people take imagination seriously. And sadder still: take their own imagination seriously.

This comes out in all sorts of ways, but to take one example: literary criticism. I know a significant number of critics who regard Charles Dickens as a great novelist (and I am not saying that he is not of course). Why? Principally, because he’s “realistic” – because he deals with “life” – and he depicts conditions as they were. But almost to a man they turn their noses up at Tolkien because “it’s all fantasy…silly hobbits…ridiculous scenarios” and they simply can’t buy what is fantastical. If things are not rooted in the practical, in the believable, then they just have no value.

My friend Helen Orme, writer and mathematician, told me a wonderful story the other day that consolidated the power of the imagination in a most surprising way.

She was telling me about the mathematical number “i”. For those unfamiliar with it “i” is the letter standing for the number which reflects the square root of minus one and “i” was chosen because it stands for “imaginary”. In short, there cannot be a number which is the square root of minus one – it is pure fantasy – and so the letter “i” stands in its place.

A moment’s thought tells you why there can be no actual real result. The square root of a number is the number which multiplied by itself creates the original number. For example, the square root of 4 is 2 because 2 x 2 = 4. The problem with the number -1 is that two negative numbers multiplied together (remember they have to be the same number) produce a positive number: so -1 x -1 = +1. Equally, two positive numbers produce a positive number. So there cannot be a number multiplied by itself to produce -1, hence the introduction of “i”. 

But what’s the point of that? Well, as Helen pointed out to me, this extremely imaginary number – which can’t exist – has all sorts of interesting properties and solves some profound and practical real life problems – for example, in meteorology and electricity and so on.

What doesn’t exist seems to support and solve existential questions for what does! I am reminded of the Tao Te Ching and its concept of nothingness which frames everything: there can’t be a bowl without the hollow – or ‘nothing’ - that the wood curves round. So too with a window: it is the spaces – or nothing - between the frames that enable the window to be a window and let in light.

And so, isn’t “God” too an “i” – an imaginary number, seemingly impossible, and yet without whom the equations of life do not work?

It is interesting how “i” works particularly in the field of meteorology – which way the winds blow – and electricity – how power goes down the line and is stored – all very God-like activities.

So next time people start getting heavy about “reality” and “proof” and what they can see with their own eyes, tell them to remember “i” – the imaginary is at the heart of all things and enables reality to function.

Entering the Whale

Firstly, apologies to all of my regular blog readers, who may have noticed that I have been inactive for a month. It’s not a holiday, much less a picnic…

Imagine this: you are a strong boat sailing on various waters; accustomed to repelling the pirates of the sea, and repulsing the birds of prey from the air. You have done it for years – all is dandy. Then, suddenly, out of the blue one Saturday, when you least expect it, you are swallowed whole by an enormous whale which all the while had been lurking beneath you – it’s mouth closes all around you, and you go down living into the depths.

Such happened to me. We set out, my wife driving, one Saturday, to visit my brother in Essex but never made it! Acute pain built up, and nearly made me pass out; we had to turn back and by evening I was in the Emergency ward of Bournemouth General Hospital. A clear blue sky had turned sombre and truly I was in the belly of the whale.

I stayed there for six days and nights – a land of not-living and darkness, despite the glow worms of some nursing kindness. Three blood tests, three CT scans, two X-rays, other tests and a procedure they asked permission to do because there was a “risk”. And still they didn’t know – what was it?

I could not sleep for four nights and I did not eat for five days, and all the while a phantasmagoria of suffering and pain was going on around me! The screams for more morphine racked the air at random times. For three days my temperature was all over the place. The external consolation on a daily basis was the visiting of my wife – how precious is love at these moments?

And internally – I focused on my breathing, I meditated, and I prayed. Three lines from the Bible came to me again and again, and I used them as the focus of my prayer and contemplation.

The first, as I remembered the line was from Genesis. Sarah laughing in disbelief when she hears God promise her husband, Abraham, that she – in her old age – would become pregnant and bear a child. God rebukes her: “Is anything too difficult for the lord?”

In my illness I focused my prayer on that aspect of God that I knew from my own life: namely, that with him all things are possible. What then was this 6 cm obstruction in my gut compared with that power to do impossibly difficult things?

Then, I reflected on the Psalms: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.” The promise of God – this was my day of trouble – to call therefore, in my spirit, in my mind, in my emotions, demanding the honouring of that pledge, demanding with humility and contrition.

Finally, I remembered and prayed around that wonderful line from the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament. It is written, “Moses endured…” because? How? …”he saw Him who is invisible.” Because he saw what is un-see-able. A perfect paradox: to see what cannot be seen. Yet that strengthened me.

I focused my prayers on seeing the one who cannot be seen – and in the depth of the fifth night I wept as I felt His beauty beside me, in me - I felt the joy of the Lord. And after that I slept soundly for the first time in five days and in that sleep I had a vision.

I saw the cause of my illness, and symbolically I met the illness itself – “Alfred” – a three foot midget who stopped me flying. As I suddenly woke from the vision at a key point in the dream I knew the ending was still unclear, but also that God had shown me what I needed to do to create the healthy ending I sought.

On day six, though weak and with my wife, we persuaded the doctors to discharge me from the hospital and so I quit the whale.

Now at home, I am recuperating, and imagining that the chrysalis will return to health, and be a butterfly soon. Thank you for reading this, your prayers for me are appreciated.