There's a philosophy out there that we can motivate almost anyone to do their job…no matter what that job is. It's specifically referencing people who are unmotivated or the under-motivated. It insinuates that people are like puppets and we can get them to do or not do whatever we want. This Puppet Philosophy suggests we can not only motivate others but we can also take away their motivation as well. After all, countless employees have blamed their managers for their lackluster gusto to do their job. Apparently, we have a lot of power and control over other human beings, especially those we employ. If we have this great power over others then it must be because they don’t have this same power over themselves…right? In essence, we are motivating them to do their job because they cannot motivate themselves. It has an air of superiority, don't you think? Despite this way of thinking being long withstanding, it has many downsides that are actually counterproductive to motivation and success.

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  • First of all, it fuels a belief in personal powerlessness and rarely leads anyone to actualizing their full potential.
  • It causes people to think they can get away with being unmotivated because it often lacks any real consequence. Said another way, employers may not like it but they tolerate it and even reward it with incentives.
  • It implies that people can have control over us -– meaning they can control you and me.
  • It’s the ultimate blame game. “I didn’t get good results because my boss inadequately motivated me so it’s not my fault.” Just thinking about it makes me feel burdened with responsibility for other people’s success, or like a victim who was insufficiently motivated to achieve greater success.

Do we really want to take responsibility for motivating someone who isn't? Don't we have enough responsibility already? Who's going to do our job while we're trying to get others to do theirs? Do we truly want to fuel the notion that anyone is powerless or that any human being is controlled by another? Are we really doing anyone a favor? Being unmotivated doesn’t work for us, so why should it be okay for anyone else? It appears that unmotivated and the mediocrity associated with it has become socially acceptable, and even normal, simply because it has been tolerated for so long. Ever wonder what would happen if we just stopped motivating unmotivated people and started holding them accountable for their unacceptable behavior instead?

The philosophy of motivating the unmotivated has made ‘how we manage’ appear more important than ‘who we hire’. It causes us to focus more on finding the best ways to get people to do their job rather than the best ways to identify and hire the best. We tend to think we’re already doing a good-enough job at selecting the best (aka “self-motivated employees”) when in reality we’re not. If we look at the fact that employee engagement is one of the hottest topics in the 21st Century, we realize that there is an epidemic problem regarding poor performers. A recent article offering six tips on how to maximize employee productivity listed Step One as “onboarding”. So you’re telling me a bad hire who is onboarded correctly will turn into a Superstar? Or a High Performer onboarded poorly will fail? Nonsense! Onboarding practices don’t replace the need for effective hiring practices. The real failure is in not connecting the dots between employee performance and interviewer effectiveness…or lack thereof. I’m certainly not anti-onboarding, however I think it should be Step Two. STEP ONE for creating a maximum productivity organization is to HIRE highly motivated people. If an organization has a problem with unmotivated employees then Step One is NOT actually happening. If we’re truly hiring highly-motivated, or “self” motivated, people…people who put themselves into motion, are passionately driven to find solutions, overcome obstacles and achieve goals, then we don’t need to motivate them. They’re already motivated…self-motivated! Great hires, the people I call “High Performers”, they don’t need a perfect work environment or perfect onboarding to produce great results. They don’t become less motivated when obstacles appear insurmountable, but instead, they become MORE MOTIVATED. Their motivation doesn’t wax and wane depending on the presence or absence of challenge. They don’t whine about what’s stopping them or who didn’t do what. They don’t build a case for why it can’t be done. They find a way with the budget, people and resources that they have. They turn on their creative, problem-solving brainpower. At least that’s true for the High Performers anyway. It’s a very different story for those who are NOT highly self-motivated. These are the people, on the other hand, who can do a reasonably good job as long as it’s easy but as soon as a challenge pops up, personally or professionally, their performance tanks like a rollercoaster going downhill. And now your job is to motivate them. Let’s be clear; these aren’t the High Performers despite doing well on good days - so don't call them that. If organizational success was truly about motivating employees, why is it that we only need to motivate some employees...but not all? It’s a good question to ponder.

New light is being shed on the ‘motivate the unmotivated’ strategy for success. The management philosophy that employees are like puppets and can be demotivated and re-motivated is failing and a new philosophy that focuses on quality-of-hire is emerging. Along with it, other old-school business beliefs are crumbling as well:

  • It’s the manager’s responsibility to motivate employees.
  • A job applicant’s skill matters more than their motivation.
  • It’s more important to know how to motivate employees than it is to know how to (correctly) assess motivation during the interviewing process.

The bottom line is we're really not doing anyone a favor operating under the philosophy "I have control over your motivation because you don’t”. It creates cultures of mediocrity and causes a huge loss in personal and organizational potential. There's a universal 'upward pull' for each of us to discover our power to create great results. Fueling the notion that anyone lacks the power to affect outcomes only slows a person’s discovery of the truth. By rejecting the Puppet Philosophy, an organization can shift their focus to hiring and retaining true High Performers. Jim Collins said it perfectly: “Get the right people on the bus and in the right seat, and get the wrong ones off.”  And just so we're clear...unmotivated employees aren't the right ones. It's only when an organization arrives at this conclusion for themselves and takes the necessary steps to improve their hiring practices can greater success become a sustainable reality. 


This article was written by Carol Quinn.

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