Abhinav Sinha

The Economics of Motivation

In Leadership, Motivation, Systems Thinking on July 22, 2010 at 11:38 am

Sometime in my early childhood, I had heard this fairytale of a king, who was forced into believing by his tailor that he was wearing a royal suit stitched out of such priceless fabric that it would be invisible to the royals and the gods. While the others would only be able to see an ordinary dress, when worn by the king.

While the king roamed around his kingdom wearing nothing, the people in his kingdom were so intimidated by the consequences of contradicting their emperor’s belief that they convinced themselves into believing that he really was wearing a new suit. Just that they couldn’t see it!

It took the ingenuinity of a brave (we may call it unworldliness) child to state the obvious, exposing the fradulent claim of the tailor. The emperor was left running for cover, but the damage had been done.

Each and every subject of the kingdom, had given in to the prevalent system (a ‘belief system’, in this case) and failed to acknowledge what was obvious and evident. In more ways then one, this is what is taking place in our organizations or society at large.

Adaptability is a virtue. But its application in the case above is misplaced. Instead of effecting systemic changes, most indivduals in a system choose to adapt to the prevalant system itself.

Why would someone do so?
To my understanding, the reason is lack of motivation.

Reason for this wide spread lack of motivation?
Simple and straight forward. For an individual, it is easier to adapt rather than effect systemic transformation. To most individuals, the effort is not worth it or in other words is uneconomical.

Economics of Motivation

Let us compare a social or organizational system to a battle field scenario. Consider a soldier at the front, waiting with his comrades to repulse an enemy attack. It may occur to him that if the defense is likely to be successful, then it isn’t very probable that his own personal contribution will be essential. But if he stays, he runs the risk of being killed or wounded—apparently for no point.

On the other hand, if the enemy is going to win the battle, then his chances of death or injury are higher still, and now quite clearly to no point, since the line will be overwhelmed anyway.

Based on this reasoning, it would appear that the soldier is better off running away regardless of who is going to win the battle. Of course, if all of the soldiers reason this way—as they all apparently should, since they’re all in identical situations—then this will bring about the outcome in which the battle is certainly lost.

The soldier’s reasoning is applicable in any other system or scenario. In a system, if a change was to come by I will reason what difference will my meager contribution make. It will never be recognized, leave apart rewarded. In contrast, if there is no hope of a systemic improvement; my question would be, why make an effort at all!

Even a quite brave soldier may prefer to run rather than heroically, but pointlessly, die trying to stem the oncoming tide all by himself. It takes a Mahatma Gandhi to cut through this self cancelling economic equation and tilt the balance.

Tilting the balance

At large, it takes ‘leadership’ to tilt the balance from inaction to decisive action. To see leadership in action, let us get back again to the battlefield once again and pick a leaf from the history.

Once, a Spanish conqueror Cortez landed in Mexico with a small force. They spanish army had good reason to fear their capacity to repel attack from the far more numerous Aztecs. In order to remove the risk that his army might think their way into a retreat, he burnt the very ships on which they had landed. With retreat having thus been rendered physically impossible, the Spanish soldiers had no better course of action but to stand and fight. Furthermore, to fight with as much determination and motivation, as they could.

Better still, Cortez’s action had a discouraging effect on the motivation of the Aztecs. He took care to burn his ships very visibly, so that the Aztecs would be sure to see what he had done. The Aztecs were forced to reason that any commander who could be so confident as to willfully destroy his own option of return if the battle went badly for him must have good reasons for such extreme optimism. It cannot be wise to attack an opponent who has a good reason (whatever, exactly, it might be) for being sure that he can’t lose. The Aztecs therefore retreated into the surrounding hills, and Cortez had his victory bloodlessly.

Closer to our homes, Major Kuldeep Singh Jaanpuri (Sunny Deol in ‘Border’) ‘burnt the boats’ of his company men before going into the battle of Longewala, by announcing that any retractors will be shot in the back. By doing so he made the retreat economically unviable. Since, the soldier know that in an event of running away, he will surely be shot by hiss own commander, he calculates that the cost of running away is sure to be at least as high as the cost of staying.

There are several examples of a able leadership tilting the balance and crafting motivation. Infact the role of leadership is to ensure that the economic equation of motivation stays tilted in favour of action, instead of inaction.

Correspondingly, in a social system, behavioral economics show us that the intangibles like love, gratitude, trust, and community that we receive in a social exchange are good enough motivators that quiet easily tilt the balance.

In a corporate system, managers must understand that while intrinsic motivation is better and far more economical at motivating employees to be creative, productive, and loyal; it is also creates a long term commitment of honoring that social relationship. The reason intrinsic motivation works so well is that in addition to market capital it uses social capital to dramatically increase the employees valuation of their time.

Employees feel they are getting the better end of the bargain and are willing to own the system rather than just being in it!

  1. Bhaiya, you write so well…have you ever tried writing a book or somethings ? Just give it a shot once 🙂

  2. Wow!!…an amazing write up yet again 🙂
    Very nicely described the ways of motivation and people or resource management! A small addition from my end 🙂
    Motivation is a driving factor! More often in regular scenarios it is driven negatively…by fear! This yields results in fields where more of a physical or I would say non-brainer work is involved.
    However, where there is positive motivation..driven by passion, love or the hunger for ethical success, the result is creative and history is created. I would take Steve Jobs as a example to demonstrate it. He was a student like everybody else but, he was somehow hardwired to beat IBM since his college days. Starting his career by making a small computer in a garage, he has set the benchmark in computing excellence.
    it was just my point of view. Bhaiyya, request your suggestions 🙂
    I’ve a doubt…why do you say economically?

  3. Very nice !

  4. Amazing Description !!

  5. Applying burning of ship or shooting at the back example in corporate world seems like “do your assigned work or target else your termination letter is in my hand… and you too would agree that it’s no way motivating.

    Motivation is lets do this and WE all shall be in this better situation with all these benefits in store for us..

    Generalizing the motivation is never a wise idea. Its mostly customized with individual’s need.
    For a cricketer, granting a wish of 6 sixes in 6 boll would be more motivating rather than awarding him the post of some MP or MLA

    Coach Kabir (SRK) in movie “Chak de” didn’t burned or cancelled the retruned flight to india for his team, rather at last moment he touched the softer (need) and harder (skill) aspect, he tried to explore and highlight the hidden need for respect and dignity; brushing up the individual charm for success that motivates him/her individually like “mujhe laonde ko dikhana hai” for one player; “mujhe apne saas sasur ki nazro mein izzat chahie” for one player; “getting respect for woman community or for particular OBC community” for some players etc.. and at last moment he was successfull in motivating his team by translating their needs coupled with their confidence in their skill and turning these to actual action…
    rather than burning the plane or threating for consequences like you would be shot dead at back..

    Battle situation is always do or die as if you are in some trap with no other option..
    But Social situation is do and get result else try your alternate plan to succeed..
    Motivation should be used as catalyst, not as the fuel itself else it will burn away leaving nothing behind..

  6. Hi,
    Its really interesting to read your posts as it make us think beyond the same routine discussions
    Thanks for your thought provoking topics and ideas..

  7. @ Riz, Swanti, Suvira, Shikha – Thanks for the kind words!
    Appreciation always fuels a desire to do more and do better. Looking forward to your continued participation.

    @ Riz – You are absolutely correct. the idea is never to generalize causes of motivataion. The thought is that motivation depends on the system that is being dealt with.

    The motivation strategy followed by the Generals is specific to the battlefield. The corporates would have an entirely different dynamics. But what would remain common is the fact – that motivation would remain system dependent.

    My thought is not different than yours. Motivation can never be seen in isolation. Battlefield is quoted only as an example, to showcase how thought process of one soldier effects the other in a system and how the General addresses the psyche of the system as a whole and not just an individual.

    @ Ravi – I call this economics of motivation because of a simple reason. We are motivated to perform a certain task, if we perceive the returns on our actions to be more than inaction.

    Or so as to speak if we see the act as ‘worth it’.

    Strong leaders have that ability to tilt the balance of equation in your minds. Adolf Hitler, one of the most influential leaders of the past century had that remarkable ability to tilt the balance of the entire system.

    We may debate his ethics as far as traditional sense goes, but there is hardly any doubt about his leadersip!

  8. You have a flair for writing. Kudos.
    Often motivation led by fear goes only so far. From a socio-systems perspective, I believe motivation stemming from a intrinsic desire goes a long way.
    My 2 cents for your kind consideration.

  9. i am so proud of you bhaiyya.. you definitely have my traits..!! 😉 really good write up 🙂

  10. Write-up is undoubtedly flawless. It would have been more useful if methods of motivation had been suggested for other walks of life apart from the battle field.

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