The Invisible Hand of Motivation

joe —  Mon 5-Jul-10 — 3 Comments
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Several months ago I was on a phone interview for a job when the interviewer asked “How do you motivate your employees?” In a moment of mouth before brain I responded with my initial thought, “Why? Are your employees not motivated?”

Reality was that I wasn’t that interested in the position and I don’t think they were that interested in me otherwise I would have been more careful. But I was dead serious about the question. My reply was simply “I don’t.”.

I went on to explain that when a leader tries to motivate others they create an artificial system that has to be constantly fueled. If they provided the initial rah-rah fuel, they will be expected to provide the next rah-rah. After a while everyone becomes codependent in a false economy where manager led motivators are the currency. The manager now is elevated to the role of Chief Motivation Officer and is expected to provide everyone’s reason for being there. This can work in very short bursts, but is not a sustainable relationship.

The model I prefer is one loosely derived from the brilliance of the father of our modern free market economic system, Adam Smith. In his seminal writing of the 18th century Smith describes the fundamental tenets of a free market economy.


By [a citizen] pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations

Termed the invisible hand Smith believes that the whole is best served when the individuals are free to operate in their own interests. As an aggregate they will come together and do what is best for the system. People are the most highly motivated when they act to serve their own self interests.

While originally an economic model I believe this applies to motivation as well. Systems operate at their highest ability when each individual is allowed to achieve corporate objectives by pursuing their own self interests.

Motivation.png

Basically, the highest form of committed activity comes when a leader provides the freedom for individuals to pursue their individual motives. Note that this does not say leaders should motivate their teams; leaders should provide the freedom of pursuit.

One of the most amazing phrases in the Declaration of Independence is where we are granted not happiness but the unalienable right to pursue happiness. As a leader, recognizing and then providing the freedom for individuals to pursue goals in a manner that is in their best self interest yields the most highly motivated actions.

So if everyone is going to pursue their own self-interests isn’t that chaos? Very possibly – but not if the leader takes on their critical role. Their are four essential actions a leader must do to make this work.

    The 4 Essential Elements of Invisible Hand Leadership

  1. Understand each person’s self interests (CRITICAL!)
  2. Hire only individuals whose self interests are not detrimental with your team’s goals.
  3. Develop a plan that allows their self-interested pursuits to be aligned with your team’s goals.
  4. Communicate that plan with them.

Imagine you are interviewing a software engineer and you’ve discovered that she would someday like to get her Masters degree (step 1). We love people that seek to improve themselves (step 2), but the program and school she is interested in only offers day classes. What if I made her part of our Atlanta based team for a year and if she demonstrated an ability to deliver I would let her be the team lead for our team in India? That way she could work the late night shift, the same time that they are working, and then attend classes during the day. (step 3).

How motivated do you think this future employee will be when you communicate (step 4) your plan to her? You’ve demonstrated that her own self-interests can be achieved if she continually performs. That’s the role of the leader – to provide alignment of personal self-interests with team goals and then to give the freedom necessary to achieve both.

Maslow.pngAs a leader you need to have a keen sense of awareness of what are true self-interests. They are likely to be things like work-life balance, growth, security (like a good resume), community and purpose. Look no further than Maslow and you will find that many of these themes are played out over and again.

Firing yourself as the Chief Motivation Officer is a key first step to building a highly self-motivated team. Employing the elements above is the next.

Today’s Question
What are some of the key self-interests you have and does your current environment promote the pursuit of these interests?

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  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

    I once managed a handful of programmers whose primary interest was to be part of a small self-organizing team producing high-quality software (internal and external quality) using eXtreme Programming. They were motivated by the opportunity to practice their craft with as little interference from management as possible. From a selfish team-centric point of view, I successfully did steps 1-4. When I first joined the team, I communicated (demonstrated, actually) my understanding and support of XP and the team. There was little to communicate after than other than continued support and involvement. That was demonstrated well with our hiring practices (step 2). I was rewarded with very low turnover and a very high quality product.

    The difficulty came years later when the business’ needs shifted from “long-term productivity through quality” to “more features delivered right now” and a belief that our quality was too expensive. The self-interests of the team no longer matched the needs of the business.

    • http://www.TheStrandedStarfish.com joe

      Why does it seem most companies do that when they “grow up”? We’ve all seen that happen time and again.

      How is it possible that “business needs” can ever be justified that reduce inherent quality design?

      • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

        In this particular case, the company had only one real client for this product line. They were unable to capture the market opportunity that they thought would be there. Early on, management and the client suspended disbelief (that is, they trusted the team to build things the way they thought best and they would wait to see if the high quality would pay off). After some number of years, with only one client to carry the full cost of development, management and the client began to grow impatient. The client was impatient with the cost and with the speed with which new features could be added to the product. The extent of this dissatisfaction wasn’t discussed, at least not with me or the developers, but I can infer it from management’s actions. Everyone certainly enjoyed the great quality though.

        Was the development slow? I really don’t think so. This was a large enterprise-wide software product with lots of distributed parts. Most features of significance would cross the corporate, the backoffice, and POS tiers and thus involve data flows among them and backwards compatibility since each tear could at times need to be a version ahead of the lower tears. I also did some analysis comparing this to some industry average data and believe the speed was average (again, but with very high quality).

        You can get a short boost of speed at the expense of incurring more technical debt than normal. But to do that, you’ve got to paint a good picture of the problem to development. You’ve got to get them to understand the seriousness of the situation and give them a vision of how long or how much or how many of what is needed so that they can buy-in to changing their habits and their preferred, ingrained and natural method of working. You want them to work-differently. That’s difficult to achieve.