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Thursday, September 20, 2012

How Motivation Research Caused a Nation Pain

In 1966, Edwin E. Locke published his first writings on goal setting. In 1968, he put forth a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives. It is Edwin E. Locke's research that underpins every single KPI developed yearly in every organization that dares to call itself an organization. It is again Edwin E. Locke's research that underpins every single performance bonus that goes into people's bank accounts the world over.

Before Locke was born, people worked hard without consciously setting goals. Neither did they receive performance bonuses. They found little joys in their every day which gave work its own satisfaction. The best recipes for bread were created BEFORE the advent of goal setting. One of my favourite chocolate cakes (the Opéra) was invented BEFORE Locke was even born. The liquid gold that is the Courvoisier XO Cognac Impérial needs 35 years of careful tending under strict environmental conditions and follows rigorous process steps that would put Toyota to shame... ALSO invented and savored for centuries BEFORE the invention of KPIs. Marie Curie gave her life for her research BEFORE the advent of performance bonuses. Farmers woke up at the same time every day before the sun rose for eons BEFORE the advent of SMART goals.

And then, get this, Steve Jobs pulled Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy without getting paid (but he had enough to live on). A friend of mine who lectures at Technion University, Israel, tells me that the Israeli Armed Forces do not have performance bonuses... and yet THIS is the army that won wars and keeps Israel's enemies at bay.

Left alone without KPIs and money rewards (and with enough money to sustain a dignified existence) people found their motivation to work from a natural combination of loving what they do, finding meaning in their everyday efforts, getting good at what they do... being loved by others for it. Before the advent of KPIs, people worked their whole lives and didn't burn out nor need a holiday because the rhythm of work and of life possessed a SUSTAINABLE balance. People fed their motivation with Sustaining Emotions - pride in their creation, love from significant others, respect from the social context. As long as they were paid enough, the enthusiasm to get up and go to work came from Sustaining Emotions.

Factory Audits Took Away Joy of Teaching
I had been teaching some university modules in the past few years. I loved what I did and did well enough to have gotten wonderful feedback from overseas researchers commissioned to audit the quality of the materials I wrote. I scored well for my student evaluations and once, I even had the highest score of all the part-timers.

Then they brought in MOE with all their factory management audit processes. At every turn, I had to comply with some factory-like process specifications and work towards numerical KPIs instead of being left alone to respond to the needs of my students, and enjoy them. I didn't feel like working because I felt that I was FORCED to. Do this or we won't pay you. Do that or you won't have your contract renewed. I began to feel less pride in my work because nothing that I did was exactly like those factory specifications even though I thought I had done a few clever things to respond to student needs. The pay was quite paltry really and without the sense of pride I used to get, the pay began to look very small indeed. I was already earning money and having more fun elsewhere.

In addition, I found myself doing stupid work such as spending hours massaging the wording of my Learning Outcomes in order to comply with audit requirements... BUT still stay true to the initial intent of what I had set out to do for the students. I can so relate to what teachers say about MOE creating meaningless work for Teachers because that was what my university was doing to me in the past 12 months. I was also shocked when someone shared that an MOE school actually only has ONE black and white photocopier for 60 teachers to share. This is what results from tying MOE funding to school excellence. The lousy schools get lousier. How motivating can it be when you don't even have the basic equipment to do your job with?

I decided to quit before my university got to that stage, thanks entirely to the MOE Audit Team. Now, I do my own thing and get my satisfaction from wanting to give my best without being forced to. After I have helped Mommies... Daddies drive up in their big cars, get out and tell me "Thank you. My wife has changed so much."

What the MOE Audit Team did at my university (thanks in part to Edwin Locke's goal setting research), they have been doing to Singapore schools for 3 decades. In a sense, thanks in part to Edwin Locke, our nation has re-defined child abuse in the name of academic excellence.

The thing is this. Goal setting works. It is an effective strategy. Anything that is EFFECTIVE is dangerous if overused or used inappropriately. There is a time and place for Goal Setting but it should not be the ONLY ingredient in an HR system's motivation recipe. It may be good to note that Goal Setting lends itself well to powering the Manufacturing Economy. We exist today in a Knowledge Economy where OTHER motivation strategies need to come to the fore.

Making It Difficult to LIVE At Work
The thing about KPIs, awards and money is that they are ways of FORCING effort. The personal effort expended goes to building up bank accounts and CVs. The personal effort expended does not build the human spirit because there is no generation of Sustaining Emotions (i.e., pride in their creation, love from significant others, respect from the social context). Those who really do want to take pride in their work, leave and become tutors or SAHMs. Those who can still bear to keep going to work for MOE get their joys from competing and winning... from seeing their bank accounts grow... from doing their work so that they can have a life elsewhere (since the system made it so difficult to have LIVE at work).

Teaching is a GIVING job. For many years now, those who are considered Top Potential in the teaching service are the go-getters. They GET. They do not GIVE. The educational system, in its eagerness to emulate the manufacturing sector, has raised a generation of school leaders who want to compete and win, instead of nurture and collaborate. Teaching was a woman's domain that has become a man's world... and believe me, a woman can be more deadly in competition than a man. At least, when Petunia decides to compete, she can be more ruthless than any man. But I hate myself when I am like that.

Purging Toxin
It will take a while for MOE to purge the wrong people out of its system... the sharp tooth wolves who are out to compete and win, instead of nurture and collaborate. These people will be those who will worry about how they will be appraised and rewarded. Those who deserve to stay are those who tell themselves - "I am here to teach and to love the children. These silly MOE HQ people can do what they want with all their outdated management systems but I am already happy that I get more time to do what I love."


Celine said...

I instinctively thought KPIs are nonsense in education, and everywhere else, but a standardised manufacturing process. It took a motivation researcher like you to lay out the reasoning. Thanks a million!

Petunia Lee said...

Quite a few people told me that they stay in MOE because the pay is good. That is the wrong reason to stay.