Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Demotivating Creative Workers

“Motivation” is often spoken of as if it is something that one person can do for another – to inject other people with a will to succeed and excel.   It is this sense that the football fan, shouting at the television from his living room chair, feels that he has contributed to the game – that his favorite team would have lost the game, or sat sleepily on the bench, if it weren’t for all his cheering.   In a similar manner, a boss who feels he has “motivated” his people by barking orders at them, telling them to do what they already know how to do, and nagging them to do it better and faster without providing any means of practical support erroneously feels that he has practiced leadership and caused his employees to perform better.

Browbeating people can “motivate” them to do something they are not interested in doing, but only to the degree that is necessary for them to escape nagging.   People who are truly motivated to excel do not need a cheerleader or slave-driver, and in fact such people often distract them from their goal and detract from their performance.    You can direct a person’s enthusiasm to a specific course of action (only if they had none in mind), you can clear barriers to their success, and you can provide them with the resources they need to succeed – but you cannot make them want to succeed if they are not already motivated from within.

Ironically, most methods for motivating people tend to demotivate them instead: telling them to do things that they already know that they need to do, giving vague encouragement (or threats) to do things “better” or “faster” without specific guidance or additional resources, and otherwise interfering with and distracting from their ability to do the good work they might have done if they were left alone to do it.

Consider that the things that people do in their leisure time is not so different from the things that people do for a living – the difference between a gardener and a farmer, between a woodworking enthusiast and a carpenter, between a home cook and a restaurant chef, between an amateur golfer and a professional athlete is negligible.   

Some highly motivated employees have chosen a profession that matches their interests, but more often the motivated employee has taken an interest in what they happen to do for a paycheck.   There are many people who are quite happy working as janitors, a job that is often regarded as low-paying, tedious, and unpleasant – but a janitor who takes interest in the work, who finds  mopping a floor an engaging challenge and believes he has served others by doing the work, can happily carry on for years.

Creative people are drawn to professions because they love the activity, but lose their passion because of the lack of autonomy: they cannot create at their leisure, and cannot create work that is “good” by their own standards.  Instead, they must work to deadlines and satisfy specifications, and are often beset by meddlers who have less knowledge or expertise – yet who still feel that it is their role to tell the creative worker how to do his job. 

This is where a domineering manager or a toxic work environment can drain the enthusiasm of creative workers.   Many people bounce out of “creative” jobs quickly.   Others persevere for a number of years but are worn down and burned out over time – they attempt to contribute but are unable to do so, they hold out hope that the next project will be better, and over time they realize that they will never be able to contribute in a meaningful way and resign themselves to becoming hacks.   And by so doing, the overbearing manager can drive performance metrics (which have more to do with quantity than quality) while undermining the morale of his employees and the quality of the work of his department.

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