Sunday, July 1, 2012

How 'managers' steal the joy of your work...


I tried writing
some about motivation in reply to Matt’s dilemma, but the stuff I had been reading and thinking about for some time, and some external events in my workplace didn’t fit the problem of motivating yourself very well.  So, I’m going to write some about those more organizational problems then come back, at a right angle, to the more personal problem. I believe the two are often related – lessons from one often apply to the other.

One thing is clear from living. Motivation is one of the most fundamental elements in our lives, if not THE most fundamental element. So, any thinking we can do about motivation is worth the effort. You could debate this question forever: Which is more important, motivation or talent?

Talent is useless without motivation. Motivation, however, can almost always produce something at least close to talent. What works is motivation in the direction that is natural for you.

This is the problem with “management.” When someone else tries to manage your talent, that person is rarely trying to manage it toward its natural bent. More likely, that person is trying to manage your talent to accomplish what he or she thinks – or, more often, is told – is the direction the company wants to move toward. You are very lucky, indeed, if the direction the company wants to move is also the direction you want to move. Unless, of course, you own the company.

And this disconnect takes you right back to the problem of internal motivation versus external motivation. It comes back to the disconnect between the natural flow of your talents and the flow of external pressures. Managers try to realign you with rewards and punishments. As Daniel Pink points out, carrots and sticks may work in the short run and may work even better if you’re doing piecework, but they don’t work at all for the sort of creative, innovative, problem solving tasks involved in modern work.

Whew! Let me just let out a sigh here. Wouldn’t you think these ‘managers’ would just look around and see that what they are doing isn’t working? Their employees aren’t happy. They’re quibbling over every tiny thing like who gets an office with windows, who gets mentioned in the meetings, who gets the green carpet and who gets the carpet that doesn’t make your eyes water. They’re not solving problems. They’re afraid to innovate. They can’t wait to get out the door and away from you.

Can’t they see this?

You wouldn’t think much of this would apply to the free form world of academia, but it does. Academia seems free form from the outside only. Inside, it is as stick and carrot as any other occupation, except, perhaps, new car sales. In fact, sticks and carrots have been refined to the level of Kantian ethics in academia. From the outside academia looks like freedom, from the inside it as tight-assed as Martin Luther. Luther and Kant in the same paragraph – that should earn some points somewhere.

Instead of recognizing the disconnect involved in trying to manage another human being, in trying to bend and twist her motivations to fit your preconceived goals, managers just double-down on control. Having raised a couple of children, I understand the impulse. But, in both arenas, that impulse has led to nothing but wasted effort, wasted talent, and, occasionally, disaster.

My guess is the problem of managing others lies in a short sighted appraisal of the goal. It lies in results oriented management. Profit centers. Whatever some consultant defines as accountability. Goals that are irrelevant to the success of the work because they are external rather than internal goals. Here’s how manager see it: I have a department full of these vastly different personalities, these people with their own goals, their own talents, their own spirits. If I let them alone, 1) I won’t be doing my job so I’ll have nothing to put in my annual (some call it “anal”) review and 2) disaster will ensue. I must harness all this talent and drive it in the same direction, the direction that, frankly, matters to my immediate boss.

Change bosses and magically the direction changes. This is transparent, by the way, to employees and a source of great amusement.

Think of it the way a good hitter looks at the problem of getting a base hit: If I take care of the things I'm doing right now -- relaxing, seeing the ball, letting my hands do the work -- the results later will be fine. If I try to drive the ball over the fence, I pop up every time. Managers pop up all the time. They make themselves miserable, they make everyone else miserable and -- to put it bluntly -- they fail more often than the succeed.

The problem is, driving talent drives out joy, creativity, spirit, and the willingness – ironically – to pull together.

OK, enough for now. Next: How to tell what your boss really thinks of you and what she really thinks of your work.


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