The third, misunderstanding deals with what really motivates people. Psychologists have identified dozens of basic motivators. But, in the most basic view, each can be subsumed as being either negative or positive.
In explaining motivation to my freshman college students, I often drew a mule on the blackboard. At its rear-end, I draw a whip. At its front, I’d draw a carrot at the end of a stick.
“There are basically two ways to motivate this mule to move,” I suggest. “One is negative and one is positive. You can either whip the mule to force it to move, or you can reward the mule when it does.”
We live in such a highly competitive society, where negative motivation seems to predominate. Comparative anthropologists note that American Culture, in particular, relies far more on punishment, criticism, and other forms of negative reinforcement than do other cultures. Punishment appears to be the primary way we exert control on our children and it is the primary way we exert social control on adults. Negative motivation is so ingrained in our society few of us question its value. Most people grow up believing that the only way to accomplish anything it to be punished into it — or “made to do it.”
Success, especially, is generally viewed in such negative terms. Most people believe that the only way to become successful is to be forced into it. Success is seen as something that can only be motivated by fear and negative consequences. We fear the possibility of being fired; we worry about the loss of position and prestige, we’re threatened by the loss of income or esteem.
Generally, many of run scared as we attempt to succeed; and it seems like many organizations focus on such threats and fears to make us run. We accept this because we have been taught that the road to success is paved with negative feelings, and to be a success, we simply have to endure them.
Yet, contrary to our commonly-held cultural assumptions, success and achievement need not be negatively motivated. Many people end up being successful through positive motivations. They needn’t be punished, goaded, or prodded to get there, they are self-seeking — they appear to enjoy the entire process.
Most anyone who’s been to business school knows that study after study has confirmed the value of positive motivational practices compared to negative supervisional methods in the workplace. Still, even after decades of such research findings, most employers still tend to motivate their employees using the classic negative methods employers have always used. Cultural traditions die hard.