Monday, May 18, 2009

On Extrinsic Motivation, Bureaucracy, and the Stage-Mother Syndrome

Carrot and stick motivation, especially the latter, as opposed to communication, persuasion, and appeals to inner values, are alive and well in today’s world. The question is, why are such extrinsic sources of motivation so common? A number of reasons can be given.

For example, in the academic world of professorial tenure, faculty can almost never be fired. As a result, some administrators and chairs resort to stick tactics such as making meetings “mandatory,” providing sign-in sheets to yield evidence that faculty attended, and reciting stories like “back when I started to work in business, I said ‘yes sir!’ when the boss requested something of me.” None of these work and they certainly do not endear the administrators or chairs to faculty. In rare cases, professors have been docked a day’s pay for not attending a meeting or returning from a conference a day late. Needless to say, this tactic is even less endearing. Why do administrators and chairs feel they must wield these sticks?

The easy answer is that people tend to do what they were taught by their parents and significant others. And extrinsic, coercive methods of motivation continue to dominate our culture. But the academic world, especially the state-run university, is bureaucratic. Its management is top-down with myriad rules and regulations to guide lower-level decision making. Bureaucracy is the means by which government bureaus are run. In contrast, business management is bottom-up with policies derived from the needs and wants of paying customers and the requirements of making a profit. Employees are often viewed metaphorically as intermediate customers who perform valued services for management. Coercing and talking down to employees can lead to unhappy customers and unpleasant bottom lines. The profit motive, an extrinsic source of motivation for entrepreneurs, ironically encourages appeals to inner values in employees.

Bureaucracy encourages a legalistic, rule-bound mentality. It says, in effect, you can only do what has been codified. This leads to the generation of hundreds of thousands of rules and laws to control behavior, coupled with the impossible-to-follow proviso that ignorance of the law is no defense. This is why the bureaucratic state has become the modern form of dictatorship, a system of excessive law. A truly free society, on the other hand, says you can do whatever has not been codified, i.e., you can do whatever you choose provided you do not violate the rights of others. Rules and laws are few and they are abstract principles. Communication, persuasion, and appeals to inner values become the primary means of relating to others. Intrinsic motivation is allowed to develop.

In addition to the external structure of bureaucracy as spur to extrinsic, especially stick motivation, an insecure psychology has to be another source. Local organizations, such as youth sports leagues, that issue edicts to parents that meetings or practices are mandatory, vacations are expected to be given up for sake of the sport, and games may be forfeited if a snack-bar work commitment is not met, are certainly pushing the limit of respectful communication among adults. Not that one should issue such edicts to children either.

The question is, why do the leaders of these organizations talk to other adults this way? The easy answer again is probably that they do not know better, as they have never learned alternative communication techniques. But for some the reason may be deeper, a psychological need to live the sport through one’s children to compensate for their own failings in the sport earlier in life. It is called achievement by proxy. As a result, such stage mothers or fathers—little league parents—push everyone hard, especially themselves and their children, and they brook no excuses for failing to make practice or the snack bar. Nothing is more important than the sport and they assume everyone else should have the same values. They become blind to the needs of others, especially the needs of their children.

The push for longer and longer seasons for younger and younger children, along with an apparent obliviousness to youth injuries, probably stems from this compulsive psychology. But then a similar psychology also probably operates in some (or many) bureaucrats who seem to need to prove something about themselves by issuing new edicts—new rules or laws. The more rules or laws with their names on them, the better they feel. And stick motivation seems to be all they know.

Extrinsic motivation can have its place in appropriate situations, but an excessive use of it, especially the stick part, often becomes a power trip. Appeal to inner values is the better way to go.

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