The motivation challenge

CUES Symposium speaker says choice, connection and competence can shift grudging action into passionate pursuit of goals.

People aren’t pigeons.

Did you know that the employee motivation philosophies many businesses still use today were devised in the 1930s and ’40s? Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does and Master Your Motivation, noted that today’s incentive-based motivational paradigms in the workplace can be linked back to Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, first published in 1938: If the result of an action is positive or rewarded, it is highly likely that action will be repeated. If the action results in a negative consequence, it is not likely to be repeated.

Except, of course, people are a lot less likely than Skinner’s pigeons to keep turning around in circles indefinitely just because they’re being fed. And most of us would like to believe that businesses—particularly in the credit union industry—have evolved beyond such top-down management structures in the past few decades.

Fowler, who presented the opening general session of CUES Symposium 2020 in Hawaii, explained that incentives aren’t needed to motivate employees to do something. Conventional wisdom, she said, is “You’re either motivated or you’re not.” But actually, people are always motivated; they’re just motivated in different ways. “Some motivation is high quality and optimal, or it’s low quality and sub-optimal.”


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