A widely used approach to implementing organizational change is to communicate the goal, and then motivate people to reach for that goal. Typical approaches involve incentives for people to change their behavior, sometimes combined with disincentives to deter unwanted behavior. It's your basic carrot-and-stick approach. It works on donkeys and pigeons, so, hey, it should work on people, too. Except it doesn't work so well, because people are smarter than donkeys and pigeons.
And so it is with most motivation programs. Incentives can fail because they invite people to try to earn the incentives without exhibiting the desired behavior; disincentives can fail because they invite people to evade the disincentives even if they do exhibit the unwanted behavior. And neither incentives nor disincentives address any possible obstacles in the path to the goal.
The problem is related to a common mistake humans make when dealing with anything other than real objects. We tend to use the same thought patterns for manipulating abstract constructs as we use for real objects. Sometimes it works. Often it does not. The choice to treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects is called the reification error [Levy 1997].
For example, project managers are often called upon to report periodically the percentage of work that's complete. They do so, with the understanding that the resulting number is an estimate of a social construct — work to be done. But many of the recipients of these reports regard them as measurements of real objects, like the number of miles from here to Cleveland. They commit the reification error.
Because motivation is a construct, we risk committing the reification error when we try to motivate people. Compared to other constructs, the risk is relatively high with motivation, because it's so similar to what we do with objects. We "encourage" an object by pulling it to a desired location; we "discourage" it by pushing it away from an undesired location.
Our experiences Compared to other constructs, the
risk of making the reification error
is relatively high with motivation,
because it's so similar to
what we do with objectswith objects are deep in our psyches, dating back to infancy, even before we could speak. That might be one reason why we try to apply those early experiences when motivating people. But people don't respond to pushing and pulling the way inanimate objects do, because they are, well, not inanimate. Unlike pots, pans, and rocks, people have minds of their own. To motivate people, we must take their minds into account.
Kurt Lewin's Force Field Analysis provides a model that works well [Lewin 1964]. People tend to do what they want to do, but only if they can. Communicating the goal, and explaining incentives and disincentives, can provide helping forces relative to reaching the goal. But obstacles — hindering forces — can sometimes cancel the helping forces, resulting in stasis. The hindrances in question here are contextual, arising not from the work itself, but from trying to do the work with the resources provided, in the context provided. Before we set about motivating people, verifying that we've removed all contextual obstacles is wise. A motivation program cannot make circumventing obstacles any easier, nor can it make impossible goals possible. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Organizational Change:
- Workplace Taboos and Change
- In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they are taboo. When we're aware of taboos,
we can choose when to obey them, and when to be more flexible. When we're unaware of them, they can
limit our ability to change.
- Beyond WIIFM
- Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be
toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to
organizations that use it.
- When Change Is Hard: II
- When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance."
But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still
encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
- Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants
doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
- Changing Blaming Cultures
- Culture change in organizations is always challenging, but changing a blaming culture presents special
difficulties. Here are three reasons why.
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- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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