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The High Price of Negative Motivation

I was standing to the left of the stage in a huge ballroom preparing to speak to a group of 300 construction supervisors. I was delivering a speech entitled, Motivational Leadership: The Inspirational Side of Engaged Leadership. The CEO of the company walked on stage to give the introduction.

“Alright, alright, sit down, shut up, and listen,” he started.

“I have two things to say. One, I better not see anyone fall asleep in my meeting. Between the hotel charges, the food bill, and all the travel expenses, I paid a bunch of money for you all to be here. If I catch one of you sleeping in my meeting, you’re fired."

He took a breath, and continued on, "Second, you need to pay attention because we’ve paid this guy to come in here and help us motivate the troops.” He then turned to me and said, “And you better do a good job.” He turned back to the audience and said, “Please help me welcome Cliff Swindell".

I have had the pleasure of speaking to several hundred audiences and enjoyed many different introductions. Never in my life have I experienced an introduction quite like that one.

The evening before the speech I had the opportunity to spend some time with this CEO and some of his leadership team. It was obvious to me from the beginning of the evening that he was feared by his leadership team. He had a very strong personality, to which I am sure he attributes his success as a leader.

As a student of human behavior and leadership, in particular, I was analyzing his leadership style throughout dinner. Based on our conversation, he clearly saw himself as a visionary leader. In a very common approach to leadership, he had the vision, communicated it to his team, and directed them to pursue it.

At no point did I ever get the impression he believed he needed to inspire anyone to pursue the vision. His method of motivation in the work environment was intimidation, and he expected everyone to perform or they could find their way to the door.

Is negative motivation good?

I’m not denying the considerable power in negative motivation and management by intimidation. There’s no need to look very far to see organizations built on foundations of negative motivation because fear is a motivation technique. I simply believe that this technique will get people to do things for the wrong reason and produce a less-than-desirable outcome. Although it will help realize short-term results, it will do just the opposite and create disengaged employees.

We've probably all worked for someone who enjoys focusing on negative motivation and even thrives on it. But overall, personally, I don’t think most people want to focus on negative motivation, and there are only two reasons someone would focus on it.

  • One - Somewhere in their past, they were led by fear, and they’ve continued the bad habits of the bad managers.

  • Two - it’s the easy way out because finding what will inspire an employee is hard. Threatening their employment is easy.

However, neither of these reasons is acceptable when trying to build a culture to overcome employee disengagement.

In my experience, the difference between positive and negative types of motivation is that negative motivation leads to short-term gains, while positive motivation leads to long-term engagement. There are many ways to lead with positive motivation, including:

Give employees something to run toward, not from

Hardcover copy and a tablet view of the book entitled Engaged Leadership

In my book Engaged Leadership: Building a Culture to Overcome Employee Disengagement, I address the need to set expectations and consequences. The importance of positive consequences was shared and should be addressed here as well.

Negative motivation gives employees something to run from. For example, if you tell an employee that the next time you catch him making a personal call you will “write him up,” then he very well may stop making personal calls because he’s afraid of getting written up. He is running from the negative consequence. (Actually, more than likely he’ll continue to make personal telephone calls if he works in a culture like that and he'll just make sure to not do it when you’re around.)

On the other hand, positive motivation gives him something to run toward and can change his behavior. Tell him what positive thing will happen if he goes the next three months and you ­haven’t had to talk to him about making personal calls.

Ask employees what positive motivation will inspire them

One of the most common questions I receive is related to ways to motivate employees. Managers tell me they’ve done everything they know to do to inspire their employees, yet their employees still aren't motivated.

My advice to them is always the same, which is to stop trying to figure out what will motivate them and just ask them what will do it.

Once you know what inspires them, your efforts at motivation will work every time.

Focus on what they’re doing well

The traditional performance review includes a laundry list of things needing improvement. There’s nothing wrong with informing employees of areas of improvement but start by telling them what they’re doing well and then tell them how they can improve.

Focus on the best

All employees are important and deserve to be led with positive motivation. There is no group more deserving of your attention than the percentage at the top of your organization. These are usually the first to leave because they don’t feel recognized. Identify ways to lead with positive motivation, and direct it toward those at the top.

Negative Motivation in the Workplace

There is a time for negative motivation in the workplace, but we should start with positive motivation if we want people to do things for the right reason and if we want to build a culture to overcome employee disengagement.

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