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Motivating a 21st Century Workforce

‘The beatings will stop once morale has improved,’ just won’t cut it

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at

May 1, 2014

by Marzena Czarnecka

illustration Pete Ryan

I’m staring at a blank Word document on my computer screen, completely, utterly and thoroughly unmotivated to work. Irony of ironies, I’m supposed to be writing a column on motivation. Employee motivation. Getting your people to perform the most mundane of tasks with joy, passion and purpose.

I stare at my screen – document still blank – and let out a moan of despair. And then I call Michael Kerr.

Kerr is one of North America’s leading authorities on how to create healthier and more inspiring work environments by, well, chiefly making people know how to laugh at work. The Canmore, Alberta-based motivational speaker and author of several hilarious-yet-useful books, including Putting Humor to Work and Inspiring Workplaces: Creating the Kind of Workplace Where Everyone Wants to Work, is currently at work on his sixth book, The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing all the Way to the Bank. If anyone can find a lever to get me motivated to get going on this column, it’s going to be him.

Or… maybe I should just ask my editors for a raise. Money, after all, is a powerful motivator, right?

Wrong, says Kerr.


“You have to connect an employee’s personal life and work passions to a greater sense of purpose. You have to make them feel proud in a way that’s meaningful.” Michael Kerr, author

Seriously. “Money is a great motivator for two things,” Kerr says. “It motivates people to look for work, and it’s part of what motivates employees to come back to their job week after week after week. In other words, it’s what gets bums in seats. But in terms of getting those bums to be inspired and really engaged … sorry, money’s a really lousy motivator.”

Fine. Well, what should those who want to get the most out of me do to motivate me? And, you know, just so it’s not all about me – their other workers?

Plenty, says Kerr. But the very first thing they – employers, organizations, managers, leaders – need to do is … to stop demotivating people. “This is a huge starting point for me: before most employers can think more effectively about how to motivate their people, they first have to look at how they and their organizations demotivate people,” Kerr says. “We do so many things in organizations that kill the desire to work: oppressive bureaucracies, excessive levels of red tape, ridiculous paperwork, outdated policies that don’t make sense. Before you can really focus on people’s on-switches, find their off-switches: what is it that your organization does – and most of this stuff is little things, not big things – that prevent people from being happier in their jobs? And can you eliminate them?”

Do we need to make explicit how you find their off-switches? We’d better, because although this is the central theme that runs through virtually every best management practice, it also seems to be the one that organizations, leaders and managers fall short on most often: ask them. And ask them again. Remember Laura Stack, the “Productivity Pro,” from last month’s Strategy Session? One of the ways she keeps her business and workforce uber-productive and super-efficient is by asking her employees, all the time, “How can I remove your obstacles? How can you be more productive in your job? What do I do that impedes what you do?” Then, she follows up. If she hears, “I hate this computer program, this shopping card is ineffective, the way we keep our books doesn’t make sense,” she removes the obstacle. Her goal is efficiency and productivity, but she’s also removing demotivators.

I decide the cracked screen of my laptop might be a demotivator, but one that I’m myself responsible for removing, and if I decide to do so now, I’ll actually be engaging in procrastination rather than a motivating exercise, so I ask Kerr to assume I’ve been de-demotivated. What should my employers be doing to make me sing, perform, love to work for them – even when I don’t love the in-the-moment task? Because, after all, all of us have to do sucky grunt work at least some of the time – and the lower down the food chain in an organization one goes, the more of the grunt-no-glory tasks there are.

Kerr has a six-point prescription for that kind of organizational motivation, but first, he wants me – and you – to understand what he learned from Patrick Lencioni, author of The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, and that’s this: there is a difference between a lousy job and a miserable worker. We know this: there are happy garbage collectors and suicidal CEOs, whistling fish gutters and depressed interior designers. Some of the reasons for this difference in attitude is intrinsic and comes from how people approach their jobs. Yale School of Management’s Amy Wrzesniewski has done extensive research in this area and argues that, ultimately, you can divide most people’s attitudes toward work into three categories: those for whom work is a job (effectively a paycheque and not much else), those for whom it is a career, and those for whom it is a calling, a vocation. Wrzesniewski has found doctors who just plug away at a job and administrative staff who view their jobs as a calling. Guess who’s more motivated – and happier at work?

Now, you can’t give your people a personality-attitude transplant. But you can create a workplace in which it’s easier for them to view their job – whether it’s moving boxes from Point A to Point B or designing a multimillion-dollar, industry-game-changing machine – as at least a career, if not a calling. And Kerr says all it takes is six “P”s. Let’s see if we buy what he’s selling, shall we?

Passion. Purpose. Progress. Pride. Play.

Personal. I wrinkle my forehead. Huh? What? Kerr laughs. It starts with the leader’s passion, he says. “If you’re not excited about your work, why should anyone else be?” And he doesn’t mean extroverted rah-rah-rah cheerleading. In his experience, the most brilliant, effective and passionate CEOs are introverted, low-key people when they enter a room. But their passion for their work and their organization is evident in every look, every word, every action – and it infects their people. So does their purpose: they know the purpose of their organization and each person’s role and contribution to it, and they communicate it ad nauseam. Closely tied to purpose is progress – of the organization and its goals and of its individuals and their progress (you’ll have to get creative with your people here: in some roles, progress is easy to see and track; in others, it’s easy to let routine and sameness obfuscate development … but you can do it, right?). Pride in a job well done, in individual accomplishment, in team and organizational milestones and achievement is perhaps the most powerful of intrinsic motivators for your Type A people, don’t you think? And play, Kerr says, is an absolute no-brainer: when work feels like fun, it can’t feel like drudgery. You want to do it. You glow when you do it.

No-brainers all of them, really, I counter. The trouble, as always, seems to be organizational execution and implementation, right? Kerr demurs. It’s complicated, of course, but he thinks the reason most “duh, obvious!” motivational workplace initiatives fail to result in the pay-off leaders want to see is because the leader or organization fails to make the passion-purpose-progress-pride-play strategies sufficiently personal.

“That’s the final piece of the puzzle,” he says. “You have to connect an employee’s personal life and work passions to a greater sense of purpose. You have to make them feel proud in a way that’s meaningful to them; you have to demonstrate and celebrate their individual progress in a way that resounds personally with them; you have to encourage them to play in a way that works best for them.”

My Word document is no longer blank, although my laptop screen is still cracked.

Passion. Purpose. Progress. Pride. Play. And make it all personal. “It’s really quite simple,” Kerr sums up. “What it all boils down to is that if we treat people like individual human beings with dreams and desires, we can successfully motivate them – and when we are successful at motivating them, we are successful.”

Really that simple? Buying it? Try it. Then report back, OK?

Further Reading:
  • Happiness at Work (2010) by Jennifer Pryce-Jones
  • The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees) (2007) by Patrick M. Lencioni
  • It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy (2012) by D. Michael Abrashoff

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One Response to Motivating a 21st Century Workforce

  1. Philip Uglow says:

    Great article Marzena.

    I agree that money is a lousy motivator. It’s amazing how we have known this for over 70 years, Duncker’s candle problem in 1945 discussed it, but we keep on with these misperceptions.

    I would like to add that giving bonuses for performance is ineffective and outdated. Not to mention work stops when the bonus stops.

    So the real way to improve performance is to just, as Mr. Kerr states, remove demotivating impediments.

    In my work, I get to see the internal workings of large organizations and its funny, and distressing to senior leaders, that the night shift is always more productive than the day shift. Why? Less interference. The old P=A-I, performance equals ability less interference holds true.