Motivation in the Workplace: Why It’s Not All About Money

Motivation in the Workplace: Think It’s All About Money? Think Again

Part One


“It takes courage to admit…that you have something to learn, that there is a better way.”– W. Edwards Deming*

In The Great Jackass Fallacy, Harry Levinson, Harvard psychologist who often taught seminars on management to business executives, made a fundamental bedrock – and now seemingly lost – point about employee motivation types and motivation in the workplace.

Here is his compelling wisdom on motivation in the workplace:

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“Frequently, when conducting executive seminars, I ask the participants what the dominant philosophy of motivation in American management is. Almost invariably, they quickly agree that it is the carrot-and-stick philosophy: reward and punishment. Then I ask them to close their eyes for a moment and to form a picture in their mind’s eye with a carrot at one end and a stick at the other. When they have done so I ask them to describe the central image in that picture. Most frequently they respond that the central figure is a jackass.”


“When the first image that comes to mind when one thinks ‘carrot-and-stick’ is a jackass, obviously the unconscious assumption behind the reward-punishment model is that one is dealing with jackasses, that people are jackasses to be manipulated and controlled. Thus, unconsciously, the boss is the manipulator and controller, and the subordinate is the jackass.”


“The characteristics of a jackass are stubbornness, stupidity, willfulness, and unwillingness to go where someone is driving him. These, by interesting coincidence, are also the characteristics of the unmotivated employee. Thus it becomes vividly clear that the underlying assumption management makes about motivation leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy….”


“The consequences are increased inefficiency, lowered productivity, heightened absenteeism, and other modes of withdrawal from engagement…, or covert engagement in a combative struggle”

How close to home does that ring? And what employee motivation types, or “carrots,” do most managers use? Did I hear you say “money”?

And yet, you know “jackass (or money) motivation” doesn’t inspire you…

When you think about all of the methods used for motivation in the workplace, you will probably have a hard time coming up with more than one reason why money is a good motivator. That’s because it does not lead directly to great results. Here’s one way you can prove that to yourself.

Over the years, I’ve asked a number of people at all levels of organizations the following question: Think of a concrete time when you were operating at peak productivity – a moment when you were really on top of your game, when you were using much of your potential and when you were inspired and operating a very high level.

So, dear reader, take a moment to do this now. Name to yourself the project you were working on, or the task, the specific circumstances. Maybe it was leading a project team that really delivered, coaching your daughter’s sports team, or solving a tough marketing problem at work. You get the idea.

Now look inside yourself, when you were operating at that peak level, what role did money play in inspiring that great performance?

You wouldn’t be alone in saying that money was in no way a significant part of your motivation leading to such peak moments. I’ve yet to run into anyone for whom it was top of mind during their most highly productive moments. Not one example, out of maybe a thousand.

A clear negation that money is what inspires great results, wouldn’t you agree?

And yet, our typical rules for effective employee motivation are to keep using money-carrots as our main motivation tool, and then get disappointed when great results don’t follow.

Doesn’t this jackass approach to motivation fit the definition of insanity that often gets shared? As I recall, it goes something like this: insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and next time expecting a different result.

If we want more great performances from people, doesn’t it make sense to create environments that mirror the conditions that led you to your peak results, and will cater to various employee motivation types and overall motivation in the workplace?

In Part Two of this series on employee motivation, we’ll explore what motivational concepts can be applied in a work setting, to create an environment where people will motivate themselves to do great work.


“I’m learning recently, you can’t motivate people. You’ve got to provide the work environment that’s going to make them want to do a better job. You just can’t make them do a better job by paying them more money.”
Company owner*

*Both quotes are from the book, The Deming Management Method by Mary Walton.


Stuart Jennings

Part One – Motivation in the Workplace: Why It’s Not All About Money

Part Two – Motivation in the Workplace: Top Employee Motivators

Part Three – Different Types of Motivation Theories

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