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A sticky situation


You find me in a grumpy mood this week. I had planned to post a piece on weekly planning but my eye was caught by a joint paper from Toronto and Chicago Universities, reported in the Economist. It seems that researchers at the universities worked with the managers of an electronics factory in China, to explore the ways in which bonus schemes might be made more effective. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know that I’ve had a couple of things to say in the past on the way in which managers and leaders attempt to motivate their teams. It’s a particular interest of mine and what I read did nothing to improve my mood on the subject.

You can find the whole of the report from the Economist here but let me quote a couple of lines which, I feel, sum up the tone of the article and – if we assume the Economist to be reporting faithfully – the paper itself: “the fear of loss was a better motivator than the prospect of gain... Carrots... may work better if they can somehow be made to look like sticks.

Let’s ignore the fact that this research paper is, in essence, a bulletin from the school of the bleedin’ obvious. Researchers find that workers are afraid of losing money they’ve been promised; who could have guessed it? Without wishing to be too political, let’s also overlook the fact that this research took place in China – not a haven of best management practice or the freedom of workers to withhold their labour and search for other employment. Instead, think for a moment about what this paper means and what it suggests. Are we honestly saying, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, that it is acceptable working practice to threaten people in order to “motivate” them?At a time when workplace stress is increasing (and, interestingly, Chinese workers are the most stressed of all), do we really want to work in environments where that kind of management practice is even considered, never mind actually practiced?

I believe that, fundamentally, people come to work in order to do a good job. I believe that people will do a better job if they know their work has meaning. I believe that one of the roles of managers/leaders is to create the circumstances within which workers can do a good job and then, essentially, get out of the way. It always depresses me when I find there are still managers who think that threats, fear, bullying and intimidation are effective ways of “motivating” workers: the fact that this academic report adds a spurious veneer of legitimacy to that viewpoint just makes me angry.

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