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3 Myths About Employee Motivation

As a mental health counselor and PhD in I/O psychology, my clients often come to me because their workplace's management decisions have caused them to lose motivation. Some are even intensely frustrated and angry; they truly want to do well, but they feel these decisions keep them from performing in meaningful and sustainable ways.

Here are 3 myths that employers believe, but are actually killing worker motivation.

Myth #1: Pointing out someone's flaws or inflating their sense of under-performing will motivate them to "step up."

Several research theories on motivation will tell you that this is the worst thing you can do! Check out Self-Determination Theory and Self-Efficacy Theory. Typically, people want to feel like they are learning how to master a skill and can eventually do it well. If they have mastery over a skill, they feel great about being able to perform.

There are situations where companies mete out the idea that some employees have to be listed as underperforming somewhere. Creating an embellished sense of imperfection and failure can be especially daunting to someone who's worked so hard to improve and achieve more in their role. Where they are "underperforming" may also speak to their strengths: You might be punishing them for not having a strength that others naturally have, while simultaneously quashing other strengths they have which could greatly benefit your team.

Of course, we do want to help someone improve if they are *actually* under-performing. This is where a strengths-based focus comes in: What can you do well and how can we build on that? How can we constructively help you improve in the underperforming area - do we need to consider environment, time constraints, or personal wellness needs?

Key takeaway: Breaking someone down will not cause them to feel like they have to prove themselves and improve. They will see you as unreasonable and feel as though their hard work goes unrecognized or unappreciated. They will put less effort in because this will give them the message that their effort doesn't matter.

Myth #2: Creating a universal standard for approaching clients will make employees provide better service.

Again, multiple research results show that autonomy is a #1 factor in motivation. As participants in my own research have told me, "Let me do what I know my clients want, and how I know the job needs to get done." Of course, we have to factor in the parameters that management and the company needs the employees to observe, and we have to ensure that the employee is as competent as s/he thinks s/he is.

But the fact remains that people have different strengths which speak to different skills. One client-facing employee may be boisterous and amicable, whereas another may be calm and demure; these are going to attract multiple types of clients because some may prefer the more outgoing one whereas others may prefer the more relaxed one.

A lot of the idea for creating universal standards is so that the bare-minimum employees are held to standards which extra-performing employees can also achieve, and therefore clients get the same service everywhere. However, we can ask - what makes the bare-minimum employees like that? Are they unmotivated? Do they have a lot going on in their personal lives which leaves them too exhausted for work? Are all their needs at home met, so they don't feel the need to be ambitious? We can shift out lens to help them perform well without holding back the employees who really want to do their jobs well, but feel stifled by corporate restraints.

Myth #3: Employees come to work to work. (In other words, employees focus on performing the job and nothing else).

Even if an employee shows up just to make that money, there are other factors in the job which keep them engaged and enthused. Any sane person bristles at the thought of being a cog in the wheel. When this "you come to work to do as you're told" mentality is thrown at employees, they struggle: Why am I being told to do things that hurt or exhaust me? Why am I being spoken to like I don't matter? Why am I being threatened with less wages, punishment, or firing if I can't perform to standards which seem unreasonable?

This is a basic response that any person would have unless their survival is threatened. At that point, they are willing to receive poor treatment in order to eat, have shelter, and remain safe. There is a huge backlash against organizations which treat people poorly because we remember times in history when oppressive governments or systems made it so that we could merely survive, not truly to exist as human beings.

Bottom line: People have needs in the workplace, and fulfilling those needs will help the organization to thrive in return.

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