The Pornographication of Motivation and Values

Distilling motivation to dollars, penalties, or positive thinking may leave something out…

A day or so ago, I came across a post via my LinkedIn feed.  It has now disappeared, probably to protect someone’s sense of career risk.  But…

The post, entitled “Stop Living Your Life Like a Motivational Poster,”  is about how the whole motivational poster and quote industry is dangerous because it leaves out essence and authenticity while peddling positivity and motivation.  The author states:

I truly believe that to keep ignoring every emotion that does not fall into the positive category is at best unhealthy , and at worse can lead to feelings of inadequacy- that your [sic] somehow strange, not good enough, not strong and self controlled enough to ‘think yourself positive’

The post touched off a minor candle fire of discussion on LinkedIn.  And, there’s something hiding in that post for those of us working to perfect (if “perfect” is a possibility) strategic leadership.

Namely, that something is about how the insidious drive to simplify, distill, and extract the essence of motivation can leave out critical context to the detriment of individuals and organizations.

That context might just be how challenging the circumstances were for a leader whose wisdom gets distilled into a motivational witticism.   Mohandas Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world” quote is used incessantly by folks who probably don’t understand the massive hardship Gandhi went through to have the credibility to deliver it.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the context can be the values and constructive intent that get left to the side of a motivational incentive.

But, why the link to pornography? 

So, I roped you in with a reference to porn, and now I need to make the link.  To do so, I’ll use a quotation (irony, yes, I know) from Pope John Paul II. He said:

There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.

Did you get that?  The problem isn’t that pornography reveals too much of the context, but that it reveals too little. Removing the context removes the dignity.

That’s what you and I as strategic thinkers and leaders need to reflect on when it comes to motivating others.  Are we distilling motivational text, structures, and systems down to quotes, numbers, and dollar amounts that remove the context (and the dignity)?

In short, are we making fundamental values a transactional thing that can be priced away?

Three areas where this may matter to you and me:

While the habit of distilling away contextual values in pursuit of efficiency and impact is something to watch out for in all parts of life, I’ll reflect on three areas here that matter.

1.  Motivating your organization:

There’s a very large market for organizational motivation diagnostics and techniques.

This market will only grow as Millennials become more and more disconnected from the values and realities of the older generations who (in many cases) manage them.  If men and women are from Mars and Venus, Millenials and Baby Boomers are from different galaxies.

Practitioners refer to this area of organizational practice as “engagement,” but reality is that this is all about motivation toward the goals of the organization as a whole. Like the article I linked in the opening of this post, “engagement” techniques and programs all too often fall into the trap of trying to distill a multi-faceted, highly personalized issue down to a few pithy drivers.

This is a noble act, to be sure; because engagement does matter.  Still, these programs turn on the distiller and invariably come up with programs that get at only one or two of the fundamental things that people think about when they think about engagement.

In your organization, one person is most engaged when thinking about building the value of the organization he works within.

The next thinks primarily about impact on the customer.

Another thinks it’s all about himself.

The next thinks its about doing good for society.

Still another thinks its about her working team.

Research shows that people split evenly on these 5 factors when selecting the one that motivates them.

When you look to engage your organization, or even your immediate team; you have to factor in this diversity of drivers.  Distilling down to a focus on team building activities or greater community involvement or quotes about whether it’s “good for the customer” will only touch the tip of the iceberg.

2.  Financial incentive structures 

There has been a decades long move toward greater tying of daily activity to monetary incentives.

This trend has slowed somewhat in recent years as so-called “pay for performance” or “penalty for performance” has time and again created unintended consequences and malicious gaming from the shop floor to the c-suite.

When we distill mission critical and values-driven activities like safety or quality monitoring down to financial incentives for attainment of certain standards, we introduce a very challenging set of defining moments for our people.

By defining moments, I mean a choice between two highly conflicting fundamental values.  Do I report that safety incident and take the hit on my bonus, or do I conceal it and get paid?  Do I report the customer complaint when my customer satisfaction rating is at the threshold of my bonus payment, or do I just forget I heard it?

These are fundamental contextual issues that get lost in the distillation of motivation to a single- or even multi-point-formula.

A great and commonly cited study that gets at this particular point involves a set of day care centers in Israel.  The study found that when there were no financial penalties (and therefore no economic incentives) for leaving children beyond the day care centers’ 4pm pickup time, parents rarely were significantly late.

However, once a financial penalty for late pickup was introduced, parents were late much more frequently.

The study shows the types of unintended consequences that can happen when a financial incentive is put in that allows people to replace a moral or ethical one.

People see the price of their ethical lapses, and can judge accordingly.

If I’m a parent operating under a social contract that says 4pm is the pickup time and leaving my child any later means a teacher has to work overtime because of my lateness, I take the moral impact into account.

If the social contract is changed to a financial one, then the price I pay for my lateness is clearly outlined and transactional. The day care center makes it easy for me to forget about ethics and just pay the fine.

This is all kind of cute when it comes to a day care center.  But, imagine what happens when you place a price on values driven behavior in a safety program, or customer service, or (shudder) healthcare programs.

Price is a clear motivator.  I’m a huge fan of price–except for when the cost of inaction is priceless.

3.  The continuing emergence of aggressive short-termism

The place where distillation of context is perhaps most dangerous is in the boardroom and c-suite.  The emergence of aggressive short-termism as a de facto course of management comes directly from the pornographication of motivation.

Boards, being limited in what they can measure when it comes to the health of an organization (though less limited than most boards realize), resort to distilled measures of current profitability and cash flow.  These measures, while absolutely critical to performance, are devoid of the context necessary for the long term stewardship of capital resources.

They are indicators of current vitality (just as a patient’s pulse rate is); but they leave out important contextual risk factors (like whether the patient is a smoker, obese or anorexic, and/or exercising regularly).

Once again, price matters.  When a senior executive can look at the price of his or her action in the short term and see the financial payoff, there becomes a transactional aspect of stewardship that boards must be vigilant about.  This is particularly key when vesting structures align such that executives’ short term actions are monetized at a much greater rate than actions that affect the long term.

So what? 

I co-opted the pseudo-term “Pornographication” because, first, I think it’s a pretty amusing term; and second, because I think it says something about what can happen to an activity (whether that be sex, love, or motivation) when essential contexts are removed and only a most basic “basis of arousal” is left for consumption.

As strategic leaders, board members, and managers; we must be careful to think through the contextual consequences of distilled incentives.  The value of an enterprise depends on considered choices about some things (like safety programs or long term investment) that can only by measured by conjecture.

Watch out for the oversimplification of complex motivational issues.

Context matters.

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