Progress is the real source of motivation


How can I use the results of my activities to get ahead? Unless we answer this simple question, we’re missing out on the real source of motivation: personal progress.

It’s always surprising to realize the depth of our taylorist conditioning – and I’ve been fighting mine most of my professional life.

OK, I’m now clear on the fact that having experts design better work processes for others to execute is a good way to get off the ground quickly, but a poor way to sustain innovation and motivation.

But the other leg of taylorism is pay-for-performance. Taylorism pioneers such as Ford paid their workers up to ten times the market rate, which is good, for a bad reason – workers couldn’t stand the mind-numbingly dull hard work and simply left (wonder why so many Chinese workers never come back after the Chinese New Year? Look at the jobs you give them).

I’ve suddenly realized that all the models I use, from systems thinking to lean, assume that immediate rewards and feedback are the main source of motivation. When examining this assumption closely, this is plain nonsense.

People do extraordinary things when they already know what they intend to do with the gains they seek. You work hard for your bonus when you intend to purchase a bigger house. You train hard every day at your favorite sport when you want to compete in that higher level competition.

Progress is the real source of motivation, not immediate rewards.

Actually, this comes as no surprise as we’ve known for a long time in psychology that we’re all very bad at evaluating absolutes, and very good at evaluating differences – with others and with our former selves. We also know that the happiness impact of cash gains is very short-lived. Since Hertzberg, we know that money is a demotivated (it can obsess you when you don’t have enough to maintain your lifestyle), but not much of a motivator (unless you need the money to achieve something specific).

Where do we go from where we intend to get to? Most systems and programs are designed to drip feed rewards to keep people at it – treating humans like lab rats. I mean, come on!

Working on the gemba where each department knows what they want to do with the results of their kaizen efforts to further improve their situation, it’s easy to see the striking overall performance gap with those that do kaizen because they’ve been told to. The former works, the latter doesn’t.

Think more deeply. When embarking in any new activity, ask yourself: what do I intend to achieve with the gains, should I obtain them?

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