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10 Biggest Myths About Employee Motivation

Managers ignore employees' motivation at their own peril. Gallup estimates that disengaged workers cost businesses $300 billion in profit each year. With the recession discouraging them from quitting for fear they won't be able to find another job, it's very likely that either you or one of your coworkers is drudging through the day, uninspired and doing the bare minimum. Unfortunately, incorrect assumptions about motivating employees perpetuate the problem. Here are the 10 most commonly-believed myths about rallying the troops.

  1. Money is the best motivator

    Americans have never met a problem they didn't think could be solved by throwing money at it. The myth that high pay is the biggest motivator in the workplace persists partly because it's such an easy fix from a management standpoint. It's a cop-out for managers so they can say, “We're paying you a lot of money. You shouldn't need any help from me.” But raises are not a long-term solution to a lack of motivation. In a few months, most people have spent them and can't even recall what they bought. Surveyed workers consistently rank pay in the middle of the pack on the list of what they really want from their jobs.

  2. One size fits all

    In their private lives, customers have grown used to being able to customize what they buy. The traditional business practice of "take it or leave it," limited-option service is fading into night. Companies should recognize that their employees desire the same treatment regarding motivation. Using blanket motivation tools with all employees won't work for all of them, because they're all individuals with different needs and goals. The most successful management comes with finding what makes each person tick and focusing on those factors to help them succeed the way they want to, and rewarding them the way they want to be rewarded.

  3. Making progress is not very important to employees

    In an early 2010 survey, the Harvard Business Review asked 600 managers from a wide range of industries what they thought most motivated employees by asking them to rank five management practices. Their No. 1 choice was "recognition for good work," while they rated "support for making progress" the least important manager tool. HBR compared the results to a multi-year study of 238 employees from seven companies and found that while the managers were nearly right about recognition (it was ranked second), what they considered least important was most important to workers. Even "small wins" that make work more meaningful for employees motivate them more than recognition or pay incentives.

  4. Surfing the web hurts productivity

    By now it has been well established that employees who are happy are more productive. Yet many employers still forbid "time-wasting" activities that help people enjoy their workday more, like checking Facebook or conversing on Google Chat. But studies at the National University of Singapore and the University of Melbourne have found that surfing the Internet for leisurely, non-business purposes for no more than 20% of a workday actually improves employees' concentration, relieves boredom and exhaustion, and enables them to produce more than those who take no such breaks.

  5. You don't have to motivate smart employees

    Think how different the world would be if high intelligence was always accompanied by high motivation. Talent would never be wasted; the world would be hundreds of years more advanced in every area. Even though we know this isn't the way it works, reality is often thrown out the window when it comes to managing "smart" employees. People with high IQs need to be motivated as much as anyone. Even if their output is already great, neglecting to set goals for them or give them positive feedback is just begging for their productivity to suffer.


  1. Employees should set their own goals

    Speaking of goal-setting, there is a school of thought that employees should create their own work objectives. The thinking goes that this forces workers to compete with each other and gives them more of a say in their job experience. But the fact is the setup of most companies does not lend itself to such participatory management. Employees have to have the time, the skills, and the support from the company culture to set their own goals. There's also the danger that they will shoot too high (and feel embarrassed or depressed that they couldn't meet their own expectations) or too low (and either under-achieve or require a manager to "correct" their goals).

  2. All motivation is created equal

    In tough economic times there is a tendency for bosses to believe the myth that all motivating incentives are equal, and therefore interchangeable. Instead of giving bonuses at the end of the year, they might instead give out hats with the company logo, or give a hearty "good job!" instead of a raise. Yes, pay is not the most important motivator, but there's also no substitute for cold, hard cash. In the same way, cash is not a substitute for praise for a job well done when it is merited.

  3. Hiding bad news is best for motivation

    It's natural for companies to want to downplay negative results and focus on the positive. However, employees don't live in a vacuum and (hopefully) are smart enough to know when things aren't going well. Sooner or later they will find out what managers don't want them to know, and they will resent being treated like children. Many companies are fond of saying employees are their most valuable resource. If that's really true, they should be informed of bad news and trusted to put their skills to work to do what they can do help the business.

  4. Motivation is a panacea

    Thinking that all a company's problems can be solved with 100% employee motivation is an easy trap to fall into. The examples of highly successful companies that are very public about the lengths they take to keep employees happy and fulfilled are numerous, and people begin to associate motivation with guaranteed success. But success depends on employees, and "motivation is a cure-all" is a myth that fails to take into account management, culture, work systems and processes, and individual capabilities, all of which contribute to employee performance.

  5. Anyone can be motivated for any job

    When interviewing prospective employees, smart bosses know to investigate whether the applicant is truly interested in the job and the associated type of work for which he or she is applying. If not, the entire process is an exercise in futility. However, some people who are a fit for a job when they start may lose interest over time, either because of the work itself, the company environment, the pay level, or a host of other reasons. And when they've "checked out," they can't be motivated. Throwing resources at the problem is only delaying the inevitable. They should be moved before they drag down output and others' morale.

April 10th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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