I f you have ever used Maslow's hierarchy of needs out of context, and especially as they relate to motivation in the workplace, I will track you down and tape you to a lamppost with a sign around your neck explaining your major error. Maslow's theory dates back to ideas from the 1940s, and research has progressed since then. Some people, including Mahmoud Wahba and Lawrence Bridwell, have found there is little evidence to support Maslow's hierarchy actually existing. (Rant over, for the moment.)
Particularly in the workplace, the art of motivation is firmly based on psychological and scientific principles. Companies spend vast sums on industrial psychologists to help change their "culture," or to assist in promoting an expensive solution to improve some deep-seated issue within a poorly performing organization.
Perhaps you may be facing some level of the "blues" and noticing a lack of motivation while at work. Some management schools would encourage you to assess yourself against Maslow's pyramid (I'm growling now as I write this) and determine if you are deficient in any needs. However, I would recommend considering the opposite: Look for what causes the demotivation.
The greatest waste... is failure to use the abilities of people… to learn about their frustrations and about the contributions that they are eager to make.
—W. Edwards Deming
In "8 Common Causes of Workplace Demotivation," Kristi Hedges noted that common reasons for demotivation at the workplace fall in eight distinct areas:
2. Lack of progress
3. Job insecurity
4. No confidence in company leadership
5. Lack of recourse for poor performance
6. Poor communication
7. Unpleasant co-workers
In Qualitylandia (that's the world we quality professionals inhabit), we would compare this list to W. Edwards Deming's 7 Deadly Diseases of Management and see a commonality or alignment of the principles (excluding excessive medical costs for psychological counseling). The challenge for leaders of continuous change is to look first at ourselves to see whether any of Hedges's items are causing the demotivation. I don't believe you will ever achieve consistent levels of motivation by having a "ra-ra" session with all the zest of a motivational speaker. To me, that's like going into your garden and shouting at it, "There are no weeds!'' in the hope it self-eradicates them from its borders. By the way, there are organizational weeds out there, and they will take over. My call to action is to find where they are lurking, what causes them, and to address that cause.
As an example, a project you are working on might not be going according to plan. You are looking to improve the performance of a specific process, and a review of the implemented change shows that the desired improvement hasn't occurred. The team members involved become deflated, and some lose the motivation to continue. It could be argued that this example falls outside of Hedges' eight common reasons, so how should it be addressed? Taiichi Ohno would recommend management by ninjutsu, i.e., learning is the key, and a solution is most likely when you "approach an objective positively and comprehend its nature."
Any delay in achieving the solution should be considered a "learning moment." It's an opportunity to gain useful knowledge that can be applied to the next action.
So if the example above is familiar to you or your business, I would strongly recommend reflecting long and hard on the company culture, particularly about how mistakes are received, and what countermeasures would promote accepting mistakes as learning opportunities. And because I believe that behavior creates behavior, by positively changing your own reaction to facing a challenge, you will similarly affect those around you.
If you are on either extreme of the emotional scale, the best advice I can give would be to follow these selected rules from Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (Touchstone, 2003 reprint):
1. Believe that for every problem, there is a solution.
2. Keep calm. Tension blocks the flow of thought power.
3. Don't try to force an answer.
4. Assemble all the fact impartially, impersonally, and judicially.
5. List these facts on paper.
You might be surprised by what new levels of motivation you can achieve through these simple techniques, and how they may inspire others.
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