What HR professionals don’t want to understand about employee motivation

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Welcome back. For this gorgeous start of the week, I propose a text about HR professionals, employee motivation, professional satisfaction and other associated topics, as a result of a conversation with two friends and reading this really cool piece by Doru Șupeală (sidenote – my fellow English speakers, I guarantee it’s worth translating every word of that).

If you’re a HR professional or simply interested in the field, just like me, I invite you to carefully analyze what’s written in that article before returning to mine.

Disclaimer, straight off the bat – to everyone following me, my goal is not to prop up my blog by bringing down or making fun of HR professionals, quite the opposite. I have massive respect for the human resources field and the true professionals that make it up, who understand the importance of people for the success of every business, who don’t use phrases such as work motivation and performance as buzzwords to make them look good but who truly grasp these terms on a profound level.

But...this article is not about them. Most of my articles aren’t, instead they’re about the gross mass of HR professionals who give the entire field a bad rep, who seem to have forgotten what working with people truly entails and what respect towards individuals actually is, who don’t seem to understand that motivation is something intrinsically human and nothing of value can be achieved if it’s lacking.

Employee motivation – from myth to reality

Myth #1 People aren't motivated by money/salary because Maslow said so

A while ago, the idea that people are no longer motivated by money started gaining traction in corporate environments and in our general mindset, too. Because, of course, we’re not animals seeking instant gratification, we’re after more profound things such as the immortality of the soul and the inner satisfaction of working for free.

Proof of that are the countless pseudo-scientific articles that more or less say the same thing (this time, fellow English speakers, it’s not worth translating that, because it’s a load of bull). And that is – people are no longer motivated by money, there are much more effective means to boost employee motivation without spending a single penny, people are incentivized by positive feedback and a symbolic thank you from the boss because, obviously, „thank you’s” are what we all sign contracts for.

The problem is not with the fundamental principle itself because there is some truth to it, only in the right circumstances – people are no longer motivated exclusively by financial gain/rewards after a certain level. The issue is with the way this idea is understood and broadcasted as a generality, as an infallible truth, a motto that’s gotta apply to every single employee on planet Earth.

Lovelies, let’s see what Mr. Abraham Maslow, this „motivation guru” that so many HR people quote without understanding in the slightest really meant to say. In short, this guy came up with a hierarchy of human needs, starting at the bottom with the basic, physiological ones (food, water, shelter etc.) and ending with the need for self-actualization or achieving personal potential at the top.

I am going to paraphrase Mr. Șupeală because he eloquently outlined what Mr. Maslow really wanted to tell us, which was – „(Maslow says that) a higher need will only be activated when those at the bottom are satisfied at a minimum level.”

In other words, if you’re dying of hunger, you are very unlikely to think about the immortality of the soul. Until you satisfy your basic need for food and other necessities, the financial motivation will yield results just fine.

That is precisely why „competitive salary” will never be minimum wage + foodstamps, no matter how much a distinguished HR lady or gentleman wearing an expensive suit and a Colgate Smile will try to fool you.

Instead, what did the HR people understand about employee motivation from all of the above? Let’s see...

Myth #2 – In-house „games” can compensate for a subpar salary and benefits package

Many job ads promise benefits such as teambuildings, dart games, foosball and other variations of Sunday night entertainment in order to compensate for the utter lack of attractivity of the salary offered.

This is how another idea came to be – that if you give the candidate a pleasant and relaxed work environment where he can play just like a kindergartener, he’ll forget about the fact that he can’t afford a bus ticket home and he hasn’t had a pretzel since the Stone Age.

But therein lies the issue, dear HR people. You cannot have motivation without a referent. What motivates me, as a manager or HR professional writing a job ad might not reflect the expectations of the candidate/candidates that I’m targeting, that I’m seeking to attract.

The problem stems from the fact that, in the case of most HR people, there is absolutely no interest to discover what motivates that person and what channels can be used to stimulate motivation, that they are happy to deliver mere cliches such as „competitive salary” and „dynamic work environment” , thinking that’s where their job ends.

However, no matter how many managers loudly proclaim the opposite, fundamentally, we are all motivated by money, by a higher salary as a measure and acknowledgement of progress.

No one goes to work for the inner satisfaction it brings. If that were the case, we would all do volunteer work and feed ourselves spiritually off of that, but before you can even entertain the idea of spiritual food, you have to first solve the pressing issue of actual food. Just like Abraham Maslow says, only once you’ve satisfied the basic needs at the bottom can you climb your way to the top of the pyramid.

In other words, a Christmas party, a teambuilding, a cool view out the window or a game will have no effect on a candidate that is first and firemost profoundly dissatisfied with the salary and benefits offered.

For many people (myself included), a pay raise or a bonus is first a measure of personal evolution, but also a sign that the company values and appreciates you.

In this context, it’s not wrong to say that extra money can play a vital role in employee motivation, up to a certain level, of course, from which we’ll work exclusively on improvement, achieving potential and other needs in the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid.

Myth #3 – People are motivated exclusively by the activity they do

Or, if you like what you do, you’ll always be motivated to move mountains for company X, even though company X does absolutely nothing for you in return.

False. Although it’s important to be passionate, to like what you do, passion is in no way enough to ensure employee motivation in the long run.

No matter how much you like what you do, routine can set inevitably, so can fatigue or burnout.

That is where we need managers who can inspire and HR professionals who understand that long-term retention is given by the feeling you can pass on to your employees – that they are part of something greater than themselves, that they bring a measurable contribution to a certain objective that’s relevant for both sides through his activity at the company.

That is what will keep him motivated even in the days where the former passion doesn’t quite burn with the same intensity, the fact that he knows he works for a company in which his role is clearly defined, a role that, above all, matters.

Myth #4 – People as statistics

A big mistake that I’ve noticed many managers and (in) human resources specialists do is see people as statistics and assess them entirely in terms of productivity or profit, essentially reducing their “human” component partially or altogether.

In other words, you deliver the right amount of productivity, you’re valuable, you don’t, we must replace you, don’t forget to close the door on your way out.

For this reason specifically, the perspectives of most HR people on motivation are so grossly reductive. Because they stop right there – at admitting the existence of a phenomenon without investigating the root cause or seeking to offer adequate solutions.

If you reduce a person to a mere statistic, you’ve decided his condition and you won’t allow him to evolve. If you only tell someone they haven’t been productive, haven’t made enough money for the company one month, hasn’t reached a target, it is the equivalent of berating a child without telling him why he’s being scolded and how he can improve his behavior next time.

Without offering the resources to improve, to overcome burnout if he’s on the verge of exhaustion, without understanding what he needs to reach peak performance and supporting him at every step, for companies to simply demand motivated employees is gross entitlement.

Motivation, more than just a buzzword

To summarize, dear HR people, next time you look for motivated employees, when you mention that as a mandatory requirement to apply to one of your job ads, think twice about what you understand by motivation. Carefully reflect if you’re only hiding behind this word to offer minimum wage and food stamps because people are simply born motivated and you shouldn’t do anything in that regard (duh) or if you truly understand the profound meaning of the word in broader social and professional contexts.

Think twice how much freedom you offer your employees, how much you support them through specialization courses, what’s your involvement in their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, what level of autonomy you offer in their job, if you micromanage them or not, if you offer a higher purpose to strive for or if you only take 8 hours of their life daily without providing anything whilst demanding them to offer you everything.

There are no employees that can’t be motivated.

There are only employers who don’t want to find out what motivates them.

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