A lot is said about motivation, and especially about how to motivate workers. It is widely believed that if you make your people compete with each other for recognition andrewards, then they will all strive to do better. Overall productivity is supposed to increase from their efforts to outdo each other.

It doesn’t. And lack of motivation and employee turnover in the car business is a chronic problem, despite the pay plans that are largely based on incentives.

The reason is that people eventually turn a deaf ear to all that motivational talk. Especially vulnerable are people who answer to a manager for their performance or lack thereof- they grow numb to all the managers’ efforts to ‘motivate them.’ Why is that?

Motivation Is Innate

It happens because your people are already motivated. Treating them like they are not motivated to be successful breeds resentment. Long ago a scientist named Maslow showed us that all humans are born with three basic lifelong motivations:

  • The drive to survive physically (Meaning to earn enough money to prosper)
  • The drive to belong to a group (To feel valuable as part of a group at work)
  • The inner drive to excel at meaningful work so they can feel ‘self-actualized.’ (To be a high achiever)

Here’s where things backfire. Your efforts to give employees what they already have does what? It demotivates them. They see all the incentives as insulting. That’s because, by offering rewards for production or by threatening punishments for lack thereof, you are giving your people the message that they are lazy.

That’s how they interpret incentives; to adegree,they see them as derogatory and as manipulative. And if you project to your people the message that they are lazy, that is exactly how they will act.

Then Why Do Managers Rely on Incentives?

After World War II, the prevalent management theory was that workers were basically lazy. Therefore, managers thought the only way to get people to work was to offer rewards for performance and to threaten them with punishments for under-achieving. That’s what managers believed, and that’s the message they sent their people.

It’s no wonder that workers reacted to all those motivational perks by:

  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Growing distant from managers
  • Acting unteachable and untrainable

Is that what you are experiencing in your dealership? To some degree it happens everywhere people are paid on commission.

Would You Want Competition Among Siblings?

Look at it like this. Imagine a family that had several children. To motivate the children to excel, the parents pitted them against each other. Only the ones who had achieved something very recently got praised. The others were treated as less valuable, in the hopes of goading them on to do better and to win recognition, at the other sibling’s expense.

What do you think would happen over time? The children would withdraw from the parents, grow distant from them and from each other, and lose interest in helping each other. That sounds like the typical problems we experience at work.

Cooperation, Support, and Synergy

When workers are constantly compared to each otherand ranked from the best to the worst, they lose willingness to support each other. The group underperforms, despite the production of one or two overachievers, because everybody else is feeling like an underachiever.

So that’s how they act, they underachieve. You lose the synergy you would have had if they were supporting each other. Teamwork disappears.

If Not Incentives, Then What Is the Solution?

Leadership. People crave it. They naturally want to be led, to be trained, to become better than they were before. That’s what Maslow’s work tells us. The more that you can put great leadership into action, the less you can rely on incentives to motivate people.

Look at The Japanese Example in Business

Before World War II, the Japanese culture was extremely competitive. Almost everybody was paid on piece work and by incentives.

After the war, a management scientist convinced them to institute a spirit of cooperation and to reduce competition among workers. Over time his ideas took hold, and we all know how successful that nation became in the global markets.

If you want to learn the details and read ‘how to’ advice on what that scientist taught them about leadership, look for books written by W. Edwards Deming. You might become the great leader you know you are.