The Motivation Problem 2: Belief Systems

My last blog on motivation discussed motivating based on goals.  Motivation also relies on three fundamental beliefs.  In order for an individual or group to be motivated to achieve an objective, the individual must believe three things: (1) the objective is achievable; (2) the objective, if obtained, will yield a reward; (3) the reward is of value, relative to the achievement.

            Ability  Let’s say you want to motivate an employee to increase production, produce better quality, reach a sales quota, or simply to stay with the organization, despite extra work and/or reduced pay.  First, the employee must believe in their own ability to achieve the objective.  If the production or sales goal or quality goal seems unrealistic or unachievable, nothing you offer as a potential reward will really motivate the employee.  As Mary Kay Ash once said, “If you think you can, you can.  If you think you can’t, you’re right.”  If he really believes that he can’t sell that much, produce that much, or whatever, he won’t make it and will feel demotivated. 

            Some things that can contribute to that feeling are lack of resources or support and conflicting goals or priorities.  It does little good to ask your managers to minimize their staffing levels, then tell them they have to “find work” for your kids, friends, client’s kids, etc.  It does little good to tell your managers to watch labor costs, then require extra hours (read: overtime) to get more production out.  It does little good to tell purchasing to save money by shopping vendors, then insist on keeping the more expensive vendor because of a “personal relationship”.

            Reward  Okay, now let’s say you have an employee who CAN achieve the production or the quality or the sales, or the extra hours needed to get the job done.  There has to be a reason to do it.  This might be additional pay, a promotion opportunity, a way to produce results with less effort, or simply keeping one’s job.

            There are production employees who are capable of producing well beyond the standard rate for the job if they believe there is sufficient reward for doing so.  The problem is, there is often a disincentive for doing so: overtime.  If a production employee can “milk” the job and make an 8 hour job into a 10 hour job, he gets 2 hours at time-and-a-half.  If he has a monetary incentive to complete the job in eight hours, he can run the job, collect his extra pay, and still leave work at a decent hour.  This is why piece meal programs and gain sharing programs, in which the production employees receive monetary incentives for producing beyond the standard rates, can be successful.  What makes these programs unsuccessful are starting with inappropriate production standards, not tying production to quality, lack of adequate performance measurement, and not providing sufficient reward.

            Many company incentive and bonus programs fail for similar reasons.  If a bonus is tied to the overall company’s profitability, then my motivation to work for a bonus will depend on my belief that there will be enough profit in the coffers at the end of the year to fund the bonus program.  I remember a CFO offering to build a safety incentive into managers’ bonus structure.  One manager who hadn’t seen a bonus in years – due to the company’s lack of profits – quipped “So our bonus goes from $0 to negative $10,000 if we don’t meet the safety goals?” Not much of an incentive there.

            Value  Once you have people convinced there is a reward for work or behaviors you are driving for, the employees have to believe the reward is going to be worth the effort.  A three percent annual increase may not be sufficient to bring out the best in your employees.  If you ask hourly employees to work too much overtime for a long period of time, they will reach a point where the extra income does not make up for the lack of personal life and the physical fatigue.  By the same token, salaried employees may be willing to put in a lot more than 40 hours per week for their paycheck, but at some point, they will need more of an incentive to put in that extra time.  One manager I knew was happy to put in 13 hour days and show up on weekends, but he did not like giving up his holidays.  If he did, he was given two days off to use later.  I think we are finding more and more that flexibility and the ability to balance work and a personal life are becoming more of a valued reward than monetary incentives. 

            I am not discounting here the value of intrinsic motivation, such as personal pride in a job well done, feeling good about helping the organization achieve a goal, feeling good about being part of a team, etc.  I am only pointing out that these rewards, too, have to be important enough to the individual to be motivating.

            To make these old theories more relevant, let’s put them into today’s context.  Let’s face it, not many people are looking forward to big raises and bonuses right now.  Many have seen their bonuses disappear, their pay cut, their perks and expenses curtailed and their pressures mount.  These are the ones who still have a job.  For many, the biggest motivation to stay with an organization and produce to their best ability is mere job security.  This, of course, presumes three things: (1) The employee believes his efforts and abstemiousness will help the company survive and restore profitability; (2) The employee believes there will be a long term reward for staying the course with the company, such as personal job security or even future remuneration (when the cash rolls in again, the employee will want his share); and (3) that the promise of the future is worth the pain of the present.  We have found that you can ask your employees to give up a lot and do a lot for the organization and still keep morale high.  Morale goes down when they begin to lose hope that things will get better. 



  • Setting unrealistic goals, often by asking for too much too soon
  • Failing to provide the support and resources needed to meet the goals
  • Reneging on promises or making promises you can’t (or won’t) keep



  • Make rewards count!
  • Act in ways that value employees always, so they learn to trust in that value


            Now more than ever, you need to keep hope alive and keep the promises you make.  If your organization does weather the economic storm, you will need your best people in place and doing their best work to manage the recovery.


About stacifoss

I am an HR professional, runner, beauty consultant and mother who is interested in healthy living, psychology, business, education, politics, parenting, community involvement and loves to write!
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