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The Compatibility Error Delusional Insights in Marketing and Performance Management Motivation.

It seems to me that there is a common error in the ascription of motivation to human behaviour when many practitioners seek to explain performance or consumer activity. This is that behind seemingly contradictory behaviours in an individual there most be some underlying motivational consistency.

Let me give you an example. A leader is notoriously single minded and focused on the numbers. The leader – it is said – is motivated to ‘win at all costs’. Now and then though this leader shows moments of unexpected understanding to the needs of others and even prepared to sacrifice a deadline or two. How to explain this aberration? “Ah well” People hasten to say this could be (a) they are not really motivated by the needs of others but this is some manipulative ploy to win anyway or (b) when “push comes to shove their need to win will win out”. Whether (a) or (b) there is an assumption that there is some sort of primary and secondary class of motivations at play. This is that our motivational life exists perhaps in some sort of ‘hierarchical framework’ in which incompatible behaviours can be explained in some way by a complex and manipulative but CONSISTENT motivational way.

There are lots of examples of this in the media: rock stars only do charity work to build their profile; selfish millionaires give money to the poor to fool the taxman; rebels only conform because they are pressurised to do so etc.

Another example – in consumer behaviour one often hears talk on mainstream and premium segments etc. as if these were inhabited by real people rather than being statistical artifacts of generalised behaviour. Premium targets are motivated it is assumed in different ways to Economy or Mainstream. Whilst this makes sense in terms efficiently addressing different large groups of people it may make less sense when we move towards ‘mass customisation’ and try to understand how a ‘single wallet’ may be opened for purchase based upon ‘economy, mainstream and premium’ motivations.

It seems we have great difficulty in dealing with contradictory behaviour in the same individual. We have a need to impose ourselves a consistency on what in reality is contradictory. Personally I blame Maslow – the idea that there is some hierarchy of motivational needs is a compelling assumption that often does not match practical reality.
If we accept that people can be equally and genuinely motivated to do quite contradictory things this has some interesting implications for the way we think about: talent management; marketing to consumers, performance management; design, customer service, leadership etc. We would need to find elegant ways to embrace inconsistency!


Comments on this Post

Steve Carter on 23rd October 2013

Absolutely agree Ruth, I believe that embracing our inconsistencies is good for us at a personal level. ( Cant help thinking that Jung with his concept of embracing your shadow would sign up for this) AND ABSOLUTELY it makes business sense - engaged people people bring all of themselves to work inconsistencies and all! Cheers

Steve Carter on 23rd October 2013

Absolutely agree Ruth, I believe that embracing our inconsistencies is good for us at a personal level. ( Cant help thinking that Jung with his concept of embracing your shadow would sign up for this) AND ABSOLUTELY it makes business sense - engaged people people bring all of themselves to work inconsistencies and all! Cheers

Ruth Williams on 9th October 2013

Very much agree. I wonder if we could become more sophisticated with training around diversity to include these rich inconsistencies as they can be just as damaging to the individual. Better still, create an offering that could reach all of the areas you list that enables people to develop a mindset of appreciating inconsistencies and refraining from judgement, not just because it's good for humanity but because it makes good business sense.

Maggi Evans on 18th September 2013

Absolutely agree Steve! This desire to reduce things to one cause seems driven by a paradigm that expects there to be 'one truth'. Recognising paradoxes and complexity is certainly challenging as a leader - but it's also far more creative and enjoyable!

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