ManagementSpeak: We have an opportunity for you.

Translation: We want you to take on more responsibilities without having to pay you more for taking them on.

Ironically enough, Richard Adams took on the responsibility of contributing this excellent example of ManagementSpeak, without my having to pay him for taking it on.

Leaders are supposed to motivate employees.

Regular readers, and especially those who have read Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World, might recall that I’ve become a strong proponent of autonomy, mastery, and purpose (AMP from here on in), Daniel Pink’s formulation for maximizing employee performance.

Pink’s book on the subject is Drive. Its subtitle promises, “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” What’s tricky is defining “motivate.”

When I hear the word, I think in terms of what gets me pumped up, full of energy, ready to take on tough challenges. I’m motivated.’s definition is more tepid: “to give (someone) a reason for doing something.” It’s way too left-brain. Motivation is, to my way of thinking at least, an emotional thing. Reasons are … the word speaks for itself. They’re appeals to one’s reason.

“Studies show that soldiers who dig foxholes in 37 seconds or less have a 13.4% higher survival rate than those who don’t,” provides a reason to dig foxholes more quickly. “Dig fast or you’re gonna die!” motivates.

Which brings us to the curious case of AMP.

While AMP might or might not be the perfect formulation, the evidence is pretty solid that when a person finds the task itself intrinsically rewarding, that person’s performance exceeds what you’ll get from someone whose motivation comes from promised rewards like money.

It goes beyond that: The promise of an external reward interferes with the motivation that would otherwise come from inside. Promise a reward and performance is worse than when motivation is intrinsic.

We explored this effect in KJR some time ago, and concluded that when offered a reward for accomplishing something, those receiving the offer immediately deposit it in their psychological bank account. As it’s already theirs, the best possible outcome is that the person offering the reward doesn’t take it back.

Which means the motivation that comes from a promised reward is the fear of losing it, not the gratification of receiving it.

And as fear, while it does result in enormous energy, generally makes people stupid, this explains why the net effect of any promised external rewards is poorer performance, not better.

There’s also this odd bit: In conversations about motivation, when I bring up AMP as motivator, very few people find the promise of these to be energizing. The reaction is more along the lines of, “Yeah, that would be nice.”

All of which leads to a conclusion:

Motivating employees isn’t the same as getting better performance from them.

Most of us, as leaders, think of motivating employees as action and reaction: If I do this, employees will be more motivated than before.

But AMP doesn’t work as a way to motivate employees. If, in a staff meeting, you tell everyone, “From here on in, you’ll have more autonomy, mastery, and purpose,” you might expect great things as a result, but you won’t get great things as a result.

Try this and you’re offering AMP as a reward — the exact approach we just found doesn’t work.

AMP only works if you use it to guide how you set up the work environment and management culture, while never actually presenting in terms of your hoped for causes and effects.

Motivation isn’t the result of your actions. It’s the result of your reactions.

Praise is a motivational workhorse. Among the reasons it’s so useful is that there’s no way to make the mistake of offering it as a reward.

Not directly, at least.

“Do a good job and I’ll give you a public pat on the back” is so ludicrous a promise that it’s hard to imagine any manager uttering it, no matter how pointy-haired or naïve. But there is a risk — that praising someone creates an expectation of future praise — praise becomes an implicitly promised reward. See above.

Praise only works as a response to something praiseworthy. Your standards have to be high enough that earning your praise means something.

It has to be, that is, an accomplishment.

Which is the common thread that connects AMP to praise.

With AMP, an employee has improved his or her skills and achieved something important. Check.

With praise, an employee must have accomplished something important (check), and as a result has received your not-too-easily-given recognition of it — an accomplishment in its own right (double-check).

Whether the employee was more motivated really doesn’t matter. What does matter: the employee has accomplished something important, and is likely to accomplish something else important tomorrow.