If employee motivation comes from a negative place, it’s unlikely to result in high levels of wellbeing and productivity. HR can avoid the pitfalls of negative motivation by striving to build a culture of enthusiasm.
McKinsey’s ‘The State of Organisations 2023‘ listed the top 10 transformative shifts businesses face. Surprisingly, nine out of ten had absolutely nothing to do with AI, which came in at a measly third despite the sheer volume of noise around how it will transform absolutely everything.
Only one item (no. 10) was about process and procedure. The remaining eight major transformational shifts were about the same thing: humans.
Eighty per cent of business challenges come from the level of wellbeing, fulfilment and health among your people. Ever since Pharaoh needed some blocks moved, there has been no end to the search for the ideal way to motivate your unique cohort of humans.
Ninety per cent of the organisations surveyed said they already provided some form of structured wellness program, such as: yoga, meditation, time management apps, days off, retreats, massages, salad bars and fitness challenges. And yet, despite all that, we were still faced with ‘The Great Resignation’ and ‘Quiet Quitting’.
So perhaps it’s time to view the issue through an alternative lens. Instead of searching for ways to motivate your people, develop a culture that breeds enthusiasm instead.
The case for enthusiasm over motivation.
1. Employees are motivated to work, but are enthusiastic about work.
Motivation is tied to the ‘task’, singular – and the driver can be positive or negative.
People can be motivated by bonuses as much as by the fear of being fired, or the need to pay the rent. So, while I’m motivated to complete the task, or turn up every day, it can still come from a place of negativity. That doesn’t drive performance or provide a hedge against employee turnover. It’s neutral, at best.
Enthusiasm is less singular, and more encompassing – motivation often requires us to know the task in advance, so we decide how motivated we are. Enthusiasm is a behavioural mindset, brought to the table before we know the details.
It’s far more likely to be grounded in positivity, as it comes from seeing the value and importance in what you do and the way it makes you feel.
More bikram, bircher or bags of cash are simply stop-gap solutions. It just moves the bar on what is ‘expected’ and becomes a never-ending cycle of negotiating where that bar should be. Even worse, we’ve known this for over half a century. As Herzberg said in his 1963 HBR article ‘How do you motivate employees?’, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.”
Focus on providing your people with an understanding of the importance of their work and the reason why it matters, and clearing the roadblocks to meaningful progress. When they’re enthusiastic, they don’t have time for yoga, because they have important and valuable work to do.
2️. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Motivation can spread, but it’s less sticky – especially if the individual drivers of the behaviour are more about survival (I’ve got to pay the rent, I don’t want to get fired, my boss is watching) than they are about positive mindset and momentum. Motivation can also be hidden, quiet and introspective.
Enthusiasm cannot be silenced. Sometimes, we may not be able to define it easily, but it’s unmistakable when we see it. It also acts as a universal amplifier – enthusiasm applies to every skill, and it lifts the capacity and output across the board.
3. Don’t be trigger-happy.
Motivation tends to require a trigger – typically external in nature.
Most people don’t wake up and decide on a whim that they want to go out in the wind and rain and run through the early morning fog. But, after watching the training montages from the Rocky movies, all of a sudden, they’ve donned their tracksuit and are lacing up their runners.
When we are enthusiastic about how we feel, understand the importance of the training and can see the progress, motivation comes to us more naturally.
Finding these triggers and using them effectively is a never-ending game. Somehow, HR has to deliver the right trigger at the right time to the right person to drive the behaviour they want.
By contrast, enthusiasm is a tool we can bring to every job, regardless of its nature.
Enthusiasm tends to be a default position, because it’s more about the macro and less about the micro. That means you don’t have to keep rallying the troops and singing Kumbaya every week in a desperate bid to keep the home fires burning.
4. Enthusiasm leads to discipline, habits and success.
Motivation is a feeling, not a skill. Skills can be taught and leveraged. Trying to instill and leverage feelings is like trying to herd house cats.
Enthusiasm is a feeling too, but it can also be a gateway to the ultimate skill: discipline.
Motivation is a high-resource affair for all concerned – for those trying to instill it, and for those trying to find it.
Due to its more intrinsic and broad-based nature, enthusiasm requires less mental bandwidth and fewer resources. Psychologically, we are wired to move in that direction.
Research from Huberman to Harvard has presented evidence for the human brain’s desire to reduce the cognitive load of almost everything. And the ultimate behavioural expression of that is when activities simply become habit; they get done without requiring mental negotiation or even effort.
Habits are born out of repeated behaviour, and that comes from having the discipline to repeat those behaviours in the first place, well before we have them embedded as routine.
Psychologically and biologically, requiring motivation is at the opposite end of the spectrum – high resource, high cognitive load, with no guaranteed return.
Focusing on enthusiasm brings us a step closer to a state where we can begin to move towards a more asymmetric skill like discipline.
Building a workforce powered by enthusiasm
Businesses want high-performing people who feel good about doing fulfilling work while delivering value to stakeholders.
People are not inherently lazy – they seek purpose and are hardwired to thrive on challenging but achievable work that comes with reward and purpose.
To quote McKinsey and Company, “Organisations need to refocus their efforts in addressing root causes of mental health and wellbeing challenges.”
Take the time to view your wellbeing and performance initiatives through a lens of striving for enthusiasm rather than solely motivation. It may well be the key to unlocking greater performance and satisfaction from your unique group of humans, all at a fraction of the cost.
Paul Watkins, BPharm, MBA (Melb) is a published author, TEDx presenter and global speaker on the art of Discipline, Antifragility and the doing of hard things. He is an accomplished high altitude mountaineer with summits on all seven continents, a serial entrepreneur and award winning Arctic ultra-endurance athlete in both the US and Europe.