All That People Need to Know is Why Their Work is Important

By John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

Motivation – nonsense. All that people need to know is why their work is important.

W. Edwards Deming, From a speech at General Motors in 1992: Introduction to a System. The Essential Deming

We do a great disservice to our organizations when see motivation as the cause of poor results. Your management system should nurture an environment where people’s innate desire to do a good job is nourished. If that desire is missing from those in your organization look to fix the management system not to create extrinsic motivation within people.

Attempting to use extrinsic motivation damages the organization for several reasons. It focuses employees on the wrong thing (getting the reward). It focus managers on the wrong thing (motivating people). In places where intrinsic motivation has been sapped, ignoring that problem and focusing on extrinsic motivation just accelerates that bad trend.

photo of Douglas Potts' daughter singing
Douglas Potts’ daughter singing Dr. Deming’s “Look Thou Unto Me” at the 2013 Deming Research Seminar.

If extrinsic motivation does change behavior it is normally short lived and focused on the specific measures needed to gain the reward. What we need is for everyone to be focused on how to improve the system to deliver great results to the customer (and other stakeholders). Using extrinsic motivation will not result in what we want. Building an organization where people know why their work is important does accomplish what we need.

For managers it is normally much easier to focus on extrinsic motivation than it is to fix a broken management system. In my opinion, this is by far the biggest reason why managers resort to extrinsic motivation. They frame the problem as their employees being unmotivated. Doing that removes the focus from their role in creating and maintaining a poor management system.

What managers should be doing is fixing the management system so it isn’t crushing intrinsic motivation. But there is no question, this is difficult in most organizations. So it isn’t that surprising managers attempt to switch the focus to motivating employees rather than improving the management system.

I said, “normally much easier”, because if the management system is significantly focused on viewing the organization as a system with an understanding of psychology (as of course a Deming based management system should be) then focusing on improving the management system can be the natural tendency. But it is hard to get to this point.

Reaching that point isn’t something that usually happens in the first year or two or even five for an organization adopting a Deming based management system. Different aspects take different amounts of time to become the default behavior. Once an organization really gets into the habit of using the PDSA cycle it pretty easily becomes the default behavior. Normally that isn’t something that slips away without attention.

But our society is so focused on extrinsic motivation that many of us slip into extrinsic motivation based thinking very easily even after quite some time of working with Deming’s ideas. When you add that to the fact that many organizations have management systems still crushing intrinsic motivation in many ways long into a transformation effort that means a manager faces a difficult task if they try to remove the demotivation caused by the management system. So they seek to accept the “realities” of a system crushing intrinsic motivation and apply extrinsic motivation to balance it out. The problem is extrinsic motivation is not an adequate substitute for intrinsic motivation.

As Deming says: “All that people need to know is why their work is important.” Without that, no matter how much extrinsic motivation you create they will be unfulfilled and unable to do what they would be able to do with an appreciation of the value they provide day after day, month after month, year after year.

The power of the Deming management system is not a few tools (control charts, PDSA…) but rather unleashing the potential within all the employees to contribute toward a better future. That requires intrinsic motivation, which the management system must be designed to encourage in all employees. And it requires providing everyone the proper understanding (things like understanding variation, how to apply mistake proofing in the organization, etc.) to succeed. And it requires a management system that allows those close to the work process to continually improve that work process.

Related: Peter Scholtes on Managing People and MotivationWhy Extrinsic Motivation FailsWhat Really Motivates Us?Stop Demotivating Me!The Trouble with Incentives: They Work

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