I once took my kids out to a local restaurant in Buenos Aires to eat ice cream. The mahogany doors, hand-painted ceramic-tiled walls, classic Italian furniture, and waiters clothed in elegance all set the atmosphere. As you can imagine, the idea of testing their three-dip waffle cone motivated me.

The waiter brought the ice cream to our table, placed decoratively on a glass plate with swirls of brown chocolate syrup curling around the bowl, a chocolate tube stuck into the ice cream, and a fresh cherry resting gloriously on the apex of the mound of white creamy joy–it looked stunning.

I dug into it with my spoon and was in ecstasy when it happened. I felt something sharp and hard on my tongue. I reached into my mouth and pulled out a finger nail!

The waiter offered his profound apologies and offered to bring me more with no additional charge, but, for some reason, I had lost my motivation to eat ice cream.

How many talented employees lose their motivation because of some bad experience? Assuming the company has a good product and customers who want its product, the leader’s ability to motivate people may be the next most important organizational capability. For years, researchers have recognized motivation as a key factor for organizational success. [1]

Managers, however, often fail to pay close enough attention to what motivates people. Several things contribute to this. They may just think they lack time to invest in motivating others, so they take the easy route of depending on their positional authority. It may be they are fatalistic about human nature; they see people as rigidly set within a personality type that is either motivated or not motivated. They may not believe they can actually influence the motivation of their employees.

One of the most significant reasons leaders don’t take a keener interest in motivation is that they simply don’t understand how valuable motivated employees are to an organization. Yet, research has consistently linked a motivated workforce to bottom-line benefits for an organization, including

  • Increased productivity,
  • Increased profits (always a good thing),
  • A more pleasant work environment,
  • More cohesive teams, and
  • Reduced absenteeism and worker turnover.

In my years working with Christians organizations, in the U.S. and in South America, I learned that motivation is not an easy thing to achieve, but I also learned that it is incredibly important. In this time when people are struggling with unemployment and the rising cost of living, people can tend to fall into a lethargic existence. In such times, skills at motivating others become even more urgent.

Fortunately, it is not a new topic and we can learn from those who have invested their careers into researching human motivation, including such names as

  • Frederick W. Taylor
  • Max Weber
  • Abraham Maslow
  • Mary Parker Follett
  • Elton Mayo
  • Lillian Gilbreth
  • Douglas McGregor
  • Kurt Lewin
  • Rensis Likert
  • Kenneth Blanchard

As leaders, we should become students of human motivation, willing to invest in learning the skills of motivation. We should study what makes people tick and how organizational culture, structures, and even the leader’s behavior can subtract from, or add to, a company’s motivation account.


[1] See for example Casey, Rickey & Jay Robbins, “Benefits of High Internal Work Motivation Comparing Retail Sector to Manufacturing.” Journal of Diversity Management. Vol. 3, No. 3 (2008) and Becchetti, Leonardo, Stefano Castriota, and Ermanno Tortia. Productivity, “Wages and Intrinsic Motivation in Social Enterprises.” Econometica WP Series, No. 16 (2009).

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