Yesterday’s Extra Effort

One time when I was working in a corporate environment, I got a new boss, who made it a point to fight for bigger annual bonuses for her direct reports.  Because my department’s bonuses fell under the heading of “discretionary,” they were typically rather, well…let’s just call them “modest.”  (Big enough to super-size your lunch for a few days but not big enough to start your retirement.)

However, this particular year, they were considerable.  My bonus was so large that I could have added all my other bonuses together and multiplied them five times without reaching the total.  In fact, when my boss called and gave me the number, I was sure I had heard her wrong.  Those types of incentives were reserved for the production departments – not for training.  But sure enough, when the check came, it was the number she gave me.

Do you think I was motivated by my boss’ generosity?  Absolutely!  I was ready to walk through walls for her.  I was prepared to volunteer for every project that came up, and I probably did….for about three months.  After that, a funny thing happened.  I forgot about the bonus.  The money had been spent almost as soon as I had gotten it, and the thrill of cash in the bank account had been replaced by the dread of credit card bills and car payments.

But that’s not the worst of it.  Fast-forward to annual performance review time at the end of the year.  My boss called me to tell me that I again got a bonus and to let me know what I could expect.  I was pumped!  I couldn’t wait to hear the number, and I just knew it was going to be a significant increase over the previous year.

Imagine my disappointment when the number was actually lower.  Now mind you, it wasn’t much lower – about the size of one of my previous bonuses lower – but I was so upset that I thought about quitting my job.  I’m ashamed to say that this was my attitude even though I still could have multiplied all my previous bonuses by five and fit them into this new one.

I’ve shared this embarrassingly ungrateful side of my personality to make a point.

Yesterday’s extra effort is today’s expectation.

This is true for most of us, not just spoiled rascals like me.  Let me give you a few examples to prove it.  Have you ever brought breakfast in for your team?  I bet you were met with smiles, appreciation and compliments on what a great manager you were.  But continue to bring that breakfast in on a regular basis, and it won’t be long before your team is complaining, “Glazed donuts again?  Couldn’t you get some jelly donuts or something hot?  What, no Starbucks coffee?”

Yesterday’s extra effort is today’s expectation.

Or how about when you put in extra hours at the office?  At first, your boss and all those who benefit will comment on your incredible work ethic.  They will commend you for your dedication and self-sacrifice.  But try to scale back to your regular hours and see what happens.  Suddenly, you’re “not as accessible as you used to be” or “you’re performance seems to be slipping” even though it’s just as high as it was before the extra hours.

Yesterday’s extra effort is today’s expectation.

Taking some liberties with the motivation theories of Frederick Herzberg, the phenomenon I’m describing happens because of the difference between Satisfiers (Herzberg calls them “Hygiene Factors”) and Motivators.  Satisfiers are things that have the ability to satisfy us but not to motivate us.  In a sense, they are the price of admission into that arena of motivation. Motivation starts where Satisfaction leaves off.  This graphic ought to help make the idea clear:
Herzberg - Satisfiers 1

When someone is 100% satisfied, it opens the door to motivation, but it doesn’t go in.  100% satisfied is not necessarily motivated, but it’s where motivation often starts.  For example, I’m satisfied with my level of pay, but I’m not motivated by it.  I don’t get up in the morning thinking, “I can’t wait to get to work to earn this salary I’m making!”  On the contrary, I feel like I deserve it.

If you want to motivate me, you’ve got to do it some other way – through recognition or meaningful work or incentives…  Now, if you pay me less than I feel I deserve, I’m easily dissatisfied.  You’ll find it very difficult to motivate me with any motivators until you’ve addressed my dissatisfaction issue.  Make sense?

What makes using this information tricky is that Satisfiers and Motivators are moving targets.  Let’s say that I’m perfectly happy with my level of pay, but at lunch one day, one of my peers lets it slip that he’s making a little more than me.  Do you think I will still be satisfied?  Nope.  Now, I’m highly dissatisfied.  Why?  Because my level of expectation just increased.  To satisfy me, you have to pay me at least what he’s making (and apologize).  Using the graphic again, here’s what has happened to what I need to satisfy me:

Herzberg - Satisfiers 2

Do you see what changed?  Now it takes much more to satisfy me.  When expectations increase, so does what it takes to satisfy me.  Are you starting to see why yesterday’s extra effort becomes today’s expectation?  In my previous example, the really large bonus increased my level of expectation.  I didn’t know it was possible to get a bonus that big before, but now that I knew, nothing less would satisfy me.  In fact, even just a small decrease created dissatisfaction.

These changes aren’t limited to pay and things related to work.  We change our expectations in many areas of our lives.  A friend of mine owns a very nice house.  It’s much larger and nicer than most of the houses my other friends have.  But he and his wife recently visited some neighbors who have a one-million-dollar house.  As soon as they got home, everything they had started to look smaller and less appealing in comparison.  Their level of expectation was raised.

Or here’s another example.  Remember when your kids were young?  Every little thing they did was a surprise and a delight, and you made sure to let them know how proud you were.  But as they have grown, so have your expectations of them.  If you find that you spend much more time criticizing them than praising them, it’s because it takes a lot more to motivate you to praise.  (I wonder what would happen if we started to lower our expectations in areas where we could afford to do so.)

So what lessons do we take away from this?  I have a few:

  • Before you start to hand out expensive motivators (like bonuses and costly incentives), consider that their motivational power has a shelf-life.  It will increase the performer’s level of expectation, and you’ll find that the motivator has to get better and better or bigger and bigger to continue to motivate.
  • Consider internal (or intrinsic) motivators first, because they have a long shelf-life and do not increase levels of expectation.  Internal motivators include things like pride in work well done, sense of contribution, learning and growth, challenging and meaningful work…  These are harder to use well, because you have to know your team members well enough to know what charges their batteries.
  • Before you commit to giving more and more of yourself to your job, your ministry or your community, count the cost.  You may not be able to scale back in the future without some heartburn.
  • If you find that your expectations are too high in some area of your life, lower them.  Believe it or not, you can just decide to be satisfied with less.  I’ve found that this strategy has really improved some of the most important relationships in my life.

As a general rule, expectations increase.  We tend to want bigger, better and faster.  Unless you intentionally slow their progress, you might find it difficult to keep up with them.


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Filed under delayed gratification, expectations, Instant Gratification, Interpersonal, leadership, motivation

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