E9- Motivation- The Circus, Cakes/Snakes & SCARF

One of the main jobs of a leader is to motivate others. And that is no easy task, because motivation is mysterious.

You can’t make anyone be motivated. All people have some kind of internal drive that pushes them to do work when things get hard. That drive is very different based upon their life experience. We all know people who have great jobs and that are highly unmotivated. We also know people who do jobs you wouldn’t dream of doing and they really like what they do. So again you can’t force somebody to be motivated.

You can do some basic things to set the right environment where your teams internal drive takes root in fertile soil. Conversely, you can really sour that internal drive if you set the wrong environment.

There are two forms of psychological motivators at the core of human behavior. And these triggers are hard-wired into humanity. The go back to evolutionary behaviors we developed when our ancestors were crawling around, scratching up twigs and berries to eat and living in caves trying not to get eaten. They are approach and avoidance.

Approach means that people will go after the good stuff. They want desirable rewards. This creates anticipation, excitement and joy. It is like watching your favorite cake baking in the oven. So for our purposes, we call approach “Cakes”. As a leader, cakes are the best way to get the constructive, long-term result. People will work longer and harder for the positive response. Everybody has some kind of reward that they like whether it is money, a plaque, time off a nice thank you letter. Some leaders only try to motivate with cakes. But that has some real pitfalls. Cakes take the form of formal incentive programs that go very wrong. Some people interpret a cakes only leader as weak and they get motivated to behave in any way they see fit. I will come back to cakes on the next episode so we can cover it in more detail.

Avoidance means that people avoid pain. We want to get away from things that cause use fear, anxiety and harm. So for our purposes, we will call that “snakes”. If you are walking through a field and we see a rattlesnake, we will be very motivated to get away from it. Fear is a motivator and we should all have a little healthy fear. People that have no fear get bit by snakes. But if leaders try to motivate with fear, they will only get short-term returns. People will work together to get through a fearful situation, but it is going to be only for the short-term. They will be in the “heck with the cheese, get me out of the trap mentality” and they will go for the short-term answer. So if a leader said “dont make any mistakes or it will cost you” people only do the things that keep them out of trouble instead of doing the things that get the most return.

We also know that there are some people who have a very low internal drive that only respond to fear. If you have those people in your organization get them out. They are sucking the life out of your team.

Bad leaders see fear as their only tool. It is a tempting partner. Because people are stubborn and they don’t listen and it is hard to get them get on board. So it is easier to go to the “dark side” and use fear to get what you want out of people. I get it.

But I am an optimist so I am going to say that most people don’t like to manage by fear. So even if you are a leader that is very conscious of the downside of managing by fear, you can inadvertently push people into fear and not even know it.

David Rock came up with a very famous model to describe the neuroscience of what makes fear kick in. It is called the SCARF model. SCARF defines the condition in which people feel threatened or rewarded. Here is what SCARF stands for:

  • Status- Our importance in relation to others. You know that reorganization or title change that might happen. That is a direct threat to status. What about if someone moves from one office to another? Can not order the pens they always order? Can not longer order business cards because they are deemed not high enough in the organization? All those things are very fragile, but if people even detect their status is threatened it feels like a snake.
  • Certainly– The ability to predict the future. Our brain is designed to try to predict what dangers lay ahead. Our prehistoric ancestors had to think ahead about where to sleep so the bear could not eat them. So being able to know what might happen next is a big deal. That pending reorganization causes a change in certainty. The performance of the company can cause this feeling. A new boss can cause this feeling. Anything that threatens what you thing was going to happen next is a trigger here.
  • Autonomy- A sense of control over events. What do we do when people are convinced of breaking the law? We put them in prison and take away their autonomy. Not being able to have a say in your work feels threatening. Micromanager out there hear this. When you stand over someones shoulder and tell them every little thing to do, people hate it. If feels good to you because you have control, but they really despise working for you. You have removed their autonomy so they are just a means to an end rather than a valued part of something bigger than they are.
  • Relatedness- A sense of safety with others. This one is hard to hear for leaders because it requires a lot of work. Has it been a while since you talked one on one with your team member? That distance is a threat to relatedness. Do they feel a lack of trust with each other or with you. That is a threat. Do the feel “cut out of the loop” and hear things late if ever? That feels like a threat. Do you have a team member that has no friends as work. They lack relatedness.
  • Fairness- This is the perception of fair exchanges. Leaders. Do you feel like it is just business? It is not to your team. If you are playing favorites? Unfair. Is there injustice or inconsistency in the way you are rewarding or disciplining team members? Unfair. Do you have a general lack of empathy and say “they will get over it”. Unfair.

Don’t hear me say that you can’t ever do anything or say anything that puts people in the SCARF Zone. Your job is to deliver the mail, even if the news is good or if it is bad you still have to deliver the message. But it does matter how you deliver the message. Show a bit of empathy and be aware of the SCARF models as a driver in human behavior.

In summary, if you are trying to motivate by fear, you are doing it wrong. Don’t get me wrong. People need consequences. They need to perform and contribute and make things happen. A little fear is Ok. We need to watch out for snakes. But if fear is the environment you intentionally set as a leader you are getting the worst out of people. You are getting the minimum out of your team and they are trying to get a new boss…I guarantee it. In that environment, the good people go first because they can and the low performers stick around because they can’t. Then the leader just feels like they have to rule by fear even more. Don’t go down the tempting road of using fear. You will not get people to achieve their best.

Photo Credit: Snake Cake Pinterest

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