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10 Myths about Motivating People …and the Real Truth

If employees lack motivation, don’t be too quick to blame them. Managers and organizational practices are often the problem’s source.

In The Truth about Managing People (FT Press, 2007), Stephen P. Robbins, PhD, examines 10 common myths about motivation.

Myth #1: People simply lack the motivation to work.

If you believe this myth, think about three things that may be going on in your employees’ minds. Ask yourself:


  1. Do your employees believe their maximum efforts will be recognized in performance appraisals?
    For many employees, the response is a resounding “no.” If they think their best efforts will yield only a mediocre review, they will suffer from low motivation.

  2. Do employees believe a good performance appraisal will lead to organizational rewards?
    When pay is allocated on seniority or special relationships, employees perceive the performance-reward relationship to be weak and demotivating.

  3.  Are the rewards that employees receive the ones they want?
    Some people want promotions, others desire pay, and still others seek more interesting assignments. When rewards aren’t tailored to employees’ specific wants and motivating drives, then incentives are suboptimized.

Myth #2: Happy workers are productive workers.

Everyone assumes satisfied workers are naturally more productive. This theory plays out as flexible work hours, onsite childcare and workout facilities, retirement plans and attractive workplaces. While these amenities are nice perks, they really aren’t incentives for high performance.


The evidence suggests that productive workers are more likely to be happy workers, rather than the reverse. If you do a good job, you feel positive about your efforts. This, in turn, fuels your energy to accomplish more. Higher productivity should be recognized with praise, increased pay and the opportunity to earn even greater rewards.

Myth #3: Tell employees to do their best, and let them find their own path.

A mountain of evidence shows us that people perform best when they’re given goals:

  • Specific goals increase performance.
  • Difficult goals, when accepted, result in higher performance.
  • Feedback leads to higher performance.

When you give an assignment with instructions to “do your best,” you aren’t providing  enough specificity.

Myth #4: People want to set their own goals.

In spite of the logic behind participatory management, there’s little evidence to show that goals set between employee and manager are superior to those unilaterally assigned by the boss.
For participation to work:


  • There must be adequate time to give input.
  • Issues must be relevant to employees’ interests.
  • Employees must have adequate knowledge and skills to share their insights.
  • The workplace culture must support employee involvement.

In reality, some people don’t want the responsibilities that come with participation. They prefer to be told what to do and let the boss do the worrying.

Myth #5: Happiness leads to “flow” experiences.

When you are deeply involved in your work, you lose track of time—a state known as flow. Flow experiences are periods of deep concentration during which workers report feelings of gratitude and satisfaction.


To enter into flow, employees must be:

  • Challenged
  • Goal-directed
  • Provided with feedback
  • Allowed total concentration and creativity, without distractions and interruptions.

Myth #6: Feedback needs to address personal qualities.

Telling employees that they’re doing a “good job” isn’t good enough. Neither are comments about attitudes or efforts. Feedback must be specific and about behaviors, not personal attributes.


No matter how upset you may be, limit feedback to job-related issues, and never criticize someone personally.

Myth #7: Reward behaviors that indicate high performance.

Unfortunately, it’s easy—and often tempting—to measure the wrong indicators. For example, the number of phone calls an employee places doesn’t measure customer relationships or sales. And when managers reward individual accomplishments, yet consistently say they’re team-focused, employees take notice.


When you discuss the importance of quality work, pay special attention to employees who exceed their production goals, but churn out below-average work.

Myth #8: Reward absolute results.

Employees compare their work situations to those of friends, colleagues, competitors or prior  jobs. They assess how equitably they’re being treated.
Your team will likely be motivated when members feel they are equitably rewarded for their contributions. When they feel under-rewarded, they become angry, and this perceived inequity can lead to absences, reduced productivity, fudging on expenses and/or requests for a raise.

Myth #9: Low-skilled workers receive pay and benefits commensurate with their value.

How do you motivate individuals who earn very low wages and lack opportunities to significantly increase their pay or receive promotions?

Traditional approaches have focused on providing more flexible work schedules and filling these jobs with teenagers or retired people. But something isn’t working: Turnover rates at fast-food restaurant chains still hover at around 300 percent annually.

Some chains have experimented with stock options and incentive pay; broader responsibilities for inventory, scheduling and hiring; and retirement plans, health insurance and scholarship money. But over a four-year period, turnover rates have been only minimally reduced: approximately 160 percent to 223 percent.

Unless pay and benefits are significantly increased, high turnovers probably have to be expected in these jobs

Myth #10: You can systematically apply motivation strategies to produce high performance.

Job success depends on having adequate support resources. No matter how motivated employees may be, they won’t perform well if they lack equipment, work space, supplies, skills or others’ cooperation. They will quickly lose motivation, no matter the incentives or rewards offered.

As you determine why a particular worker is performing poorly, examine the work environment to see if it’s supportive. Employee performance is a combination and interaction of:

  • Ability
  • Motivation
  • Opportunity

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