Three common leadership practices that kill productivity

When is SMART goal setting not smart? How do you establish deadlines that generate enthusiasm instead of pressure? Are you right in thinking that driving for results improves performance?

As you consider these three questions, I need to ask you one more: are you open to challenging seemingly tried and tested leadership strategies in light of what we now know about the true nature of human motivation?

One of the great breakthroughs in motivation science is the discovery that people’s basic human nature is to thrive. But with statistics claiming that up to 70% of our workforce is disengaged and organisations are spending almost a billion dollars per year to fix the problem that is costing them over $350 billion per year in lost productivity; it seems most executives have concluded that people are basically lazy and unaccountable. Their strategies for ‘fixing disengagement’ reflect this erroneous belief through engagement initiatives that attempt to drive behavior through incentives, prizes, and competition…or just as bad, pressure and threats.

It’s time we awakened to this truth: nobody wants to be bored or disengaged. People appreciate meaningful challenges. No matter what our situation, our basic nature is the desire to thrive. And now, because of the most groundbreaking research in the history of motivation, we know how to promote thriving. It’s not money, power, or status. Not promotions, perks, or raises. Not pressure, tension, or fear.

The foundation of human motivation rests on three psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence (ARC). But too many leadership practices undermine these psychological needs, thwarting people’s productivity, sustainable performance, creativity, resilience, risk-taking, mental health, emotional well-being and physical energy.

Here are three tips for revising your traditional approach and tapping into the golden age of optimal motivational leadership…

1. Change the “M” in SMART to “Motivating”.

Just because a goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound, does not mean that it satisfies a person’s needs for ARC. If people cannot choose their own goals, then you need to have a conversation with them about why they might pursue the goal for their own reasons—reasons that align with yours and the organisation’s—but, reasons that the individual finds personally relevant and meaningful.

2. When establishing deadlines, also provide a rationale for the timing.

Tie deadlines to the bigger picture and how this person’s efforts are contributing to a greater effort. People want to contribute, feel fulfilled, and grow and learn every day. It’s in their nature. Use deadlines as valuable information that can help them succeed and make a difference instead of a means of applying pressure. This leads to the third tip.

3. Stop driving for results.

I have a prejudice. Every time I hear the phrase driving for results, I think the leader lacks any understanding of human nature or how to really obtain the results they seek. Driving for results implies an assumption that the only way that people will achieve the results you want is if you drive them. If you think that people need to be driven to perform, ask yourself why. Are goals unfair? Are your metrics meaningless to the individuals you’re depending on to accomplish them? Are people so externally motivated by external rewards or pressure that you constantly have to drive them with more incentives or threats?

Despite what you might think, people do not do their best work under pressure as it erodes their sense of autonomy, negates their sense of relatedness, and undermines their sense of competence. The real results you’ll experience are stifled creativity and quality, burnout and cynicism, and a lack of wellbeing that leads to disengaged employees. Even in the short term, driving for results through goals that are sub-optimally motivating and under the pressure of deadlines, compromises your results. In the long-term these outdated leadership behaviors ironically lead to the very thing you are trying to avoid: employees who need to be driven to perform!

Your alternative? Each day, ask yourself how you can better support people’s ARC. Pay attention to the reasons people do their work and pursue their goals. The compelling science of motivation shows that when people thrive, you don’t need to drive to get results.

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About the author

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains WHY MOTIVATING PEOPLE DOESN’T WORK… AND WHAT DOES: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. More blog posts by Susan Fowler ››
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  • Emmanuel Anyanwu

    I actually disagree with you to some certain extent. SMART has been proven popular. and works well when executed properly. As a leader, I think you should have the ability to motivate your team by default and understand their capabilities before your assign a task to them.

    Having said that, i think SMART is a guideline tool that brings discipline on board…. enabling teams to achieve their goals within a specified amount of time.


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