Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Company life | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap


There are, at least, two ways to motivate people:

  1. Make sure that they are happy, enjoy, their work, have a feeling of accomplishment or that they do something meaningful, etc.—make them want to put in an extra effort.

  2. Give them hard-to-reach deadlines (often too hard...), use various stick-and-carrot techniques, make them feel bad about “only” working the contractual number of hours per week, etc.—make them need to put in an extra effort.

The second is much easier than the first, and much more popular with management. Yet, whereas the first (when successfully implemented) ensures that the employees do their best, while leaving them happy and prospering in their private lives; the second leads to low-quality work, “Potemkin” efforts, disloyalty—and may even affect the employees’ private lives negatively. The first makes employees stay on, make sacrifices in economic down-turns, speak positively about the organization towards others (including prospective job applicants and customers), etc.; the second makes them leave for two pins (taking their knowledge and brains with them), not do anything they do not have to do, speak ill of the organization, etc. The first is constructive; the second destructive. The first is the light [?] side of the force; the second the dark side.

A common strategy, which at first seems to be a third path, is to challenge people and their abilities. Example: If project A was delivered on time, the schedule for project B (assume an A, B, C, ... schedule) is cut one week to stimulate an extra effort; if B is on time, the time allotted for C is yet another week shorter; etc. If done exactly right, this can indeed work well once or twice, but in reality it just degenerates into the second category—in fact, I fear that most cases of the second category started in this manner. Notably, if there was slack in project A, then “stimulation” might bring an improvement on project B; possibly, on the outside, project C; but come project D, we are thoroughly on the road to the dark side—and the shortening does more harm than good. If project A needed dedicated work and over-time to reach the dead-line in the first place...

Further, this strategy poses an ethical and practical dilemma—even when implemented correctly: Typically efforts “beyond duty” are required. Ethically, this is troublesome because it can infringe on the private lives of the employees without a corresponding reward (and, by definition, goes beyond the contractual agreement). Practically, it increases the incentive to leave, and because the “best and brightest” are more likely to leave, a 40 h/week A-Team can be turned into a 45 or 50 h/week B-Team, lowering both productivity and production.

Motivation by incentives, i.e. “You do this [e.g. overtime on one project] for us, and we do that [e.g. a hefty bonus] for you.”, is similar, but closer to the light side—if a fair trade is implied. The dilemmas are gone and a first category motivation may be a positive side-effect (or it may go the other way around, depending on success/failure, fairness, and other factors). Even here, though, negative long-term effects cannot be ruled out, resulting from negative effect on the private lives, over-working, and similar.