Employee motivation has a dark side

Employee motivation

It seems in the past five years like ideas around employee engagement and employee motivation have become more widely-discussed. In reality, I think most senior-level leaders could give approximately 0.12 craps about it and mostly lip-service it, which is why it tends to fail. Remember: the highest people in a given company tend to get more from their bonuses than their base, and their bonuses are never going to be contingent on “employee motivation.” Of course, having motivated employees would probably make your productivity higher and your revenues higher, but no one thinks that way. Business is all product and process; people are the third tier, and the third tier gets just about the least amount of attention possible. Once-a-year reviews still around in The Knowledge Economy, anyone?

But as topics like “employee engagement” and “employee motivation” have become the purview of thought leaders (gag me with a spoon), we’ve almost come to accept these terms as universally good. They’re not. Good managers who create engaged employees? Those motivated, engaged employees often leave too — and then you’re losing your best people, not your worst ones. And when we push hard for employee motivation and engagement, we probably burn a lot of people out in the process.

The point is: employee motivation has a dark side. And now we have some research on that topic too!

Employee motivation: Two studies

This is from Harvard Business Review on “pushing employees to go the extra mile.” That’s a terrible term in most companies. It’s classic managerial BS where some manager thinks “I gotta slave-drive these rank-and-files to get them productive!” That’s almost entirely wrong, but the attitude has persisted for decades and I doubt me writing a blog is going to change it, so let’s gloss that over for now.

There’s two studies mentioned in this article. The first one takes place in eastern China. It’s 82 work teams. The measurement is around employee motivation — specifically, what happens when leadership teams try to push or persuade employees to be motivated?

The second study is done in the U.S. with 180 work teams. It measures the same concepts. The exact term is “motivated organizational citizenship inside and outside of work.” Cool.

China and the U.S. are different business cultures, so logically this will end up differently. Right? Hmmm. Let’s check the results.

Employee motivation: What did these studies tell us?

From the article linked above:

In both studies, we observed that employees who feel compelled by extrinsic forces (supervisory demands, formal and informal norms, threat of punishment) to exhibit the admirable qualities of a team player tend to develop a sense of psychological entitlement. This entitlement is funded by those recently deposited credits in the moral bank account. And it’s powerful enough to act as a moral license, freeing employees to engage in bad behaviors that can be unrelated to the good organizational citizenship behaviors they’ve been persuaded to exhibit.

The idea of “deposited credits in the moral bank account” is tied to “moral licensing.” If you do good things from A to M, you are allowed to do bad things from N to Z. It views morality as a series of “credits,” basically. I know a lot of people who think this way.

If you look at the pull quote, the outcome is this: attempts at compliance around employee motivation often lead to deviance. In other words, the exact opposite behavior from the one you want. Not good.

Employee motivation: The impact in HR

I think HR is the absolute joke of the modern age. It’s a department that’s often automated to the hilt, yet we somehow call it “human.” It owns hiring — which is how we get the people to do the work that will make us money — and hiring/recruiting is often a joke and train wreck. Think about the last three years at your job. How many times has someone started who was obviously a total whiff as a hire? Probably more than 10. That’s not acceptable and should never be acceptable, but in the case of HR, it is.


Executives do not care about HR. It’s not revenue-facing. To them, it’s mostly about compliance and “cover your ass” projects. No exec wants some CHRO “at the table” for the big money discussions. This is just fact at most places. If HR mattered to those who really matter, “People Analytics” would be further along.


But now we have this research — small sample sizes, yes — showing that compliance often leads to deviance. This isn’t rocket science, but HR “owns” compliance. In the eyes of many executives, it’s really “all” they “own.” Yet, attempts at compliance around employee motivation are actually leading to the wrong type of behaviors.

What’s the implication?

Move employee motivation away from HR.

But shouldn’t HR own people topics like employee motivation?

No. Because if you’re serious about programs such as —

  • Employee Engagement
  • Recognizing employees
  • Employee motivation

— then they need to be managed by a department that executives understand and care about. Heck, in some places, “sales” is the only answer to that sentence.

If you house employee motivation in HR, this is what typically happens:

  • Executives claim it’s important, but mostly lip-service it
  • HR finds a way to drown it in process, automation, and new poorly-explained technologies
  • Everyone rushes around claiming this isn’t their primary responsibility
  • The forced efforts at employee motivation cause a bunch of people to lie, cheat, and steal (see: Wells Fargo)
  • 16 months later, the employee motivation program is abandoned and no one ever speaks of it again

That’s a standard arc. Some do it better — and sadly, some do it worse. But if you want something like “employee motivation” to actually matter, you gotta strip it away from HR. Once it becomes a compliance issue — and it will in that department! — then you’re eff’ed. It’s soon to become a deviance issue.

The bottom line on employee motivation

I’d say there’s a couple of different aspects to consider here. Firstly:

  • You’ve got intrinsically-motivated employees
  • Some will only be motivated by extrinsic factors
  • Others will be a mix

At the same time:

  • Some high-achievers, A-Players, people that want to rise up
  • Some drones who just want to hit their goals and leave at 4:55pm
  • A mix of others

And finally, these factors tend to be the most tied to employee motivation:

  • Your boss
  • How people treat/respect you overall
  • The critical nature of the company (as in, is everything criticized?)
  • Your salary
  • Potential for promotion/growth

It varies by person and company, but that’s a basic list. Notice I never wrote “some program that a third-party vendor sold us.” Nope. That’s not where employee motivation comes from. It comes from people working with people, and unfortunately we often miss this part.

Your take on employee motivation

Any stories of bosses who’ve motivated you? Ideas on how to make employee motivation better or more strategic?

I’d welcome any contextual thoughts on employee motivation, so fire when ready.

Ted Bauer

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