Motivation and Its Discontents

Will bringing in an inspirational speaker cure the faculty blues? Scott McLemee describes a skirmish in the culture wars.

February 28, 2007

Lately I have been following the discussion of “motivation” taking place at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Word of the matter came my way via salty blogger Margaret Soltan, a professor of English at George Washington University. The debate is a purely local matter. It probably won’t reach the wires services, though it has certainly livened up The Daily Egyptian, SIUC’s student-run paper. But the whole matter is quite interesting as a standoff in the other culture war -- not the conflict between left and right, but the clash of values between old-school academe and corporate American.

According to the Egyptian, a recent marketing report described SIUC’s faculty and staff as “prideless.” Even though pride is one of the seven deadly sins, this finding was not cause for celebration. Administrators decided to make an investment in morale by spending $20,000 on a series of programs of an uplifting nature.

A speaker named Steve Beck -- the president of Beck and Associates Corporate Training Solutions -- came to the campus last week to give a series of presentations on the theme “Making a Difference: It Begins With You.” The chancellor, John Dunn, announced the series to faculty and staff in an advertisement that included the line, “Please plan to attend.” (A sentence it is hard not to read as having a polite yet firm tone.)  

Audio and video clips at Beck’s Web site convey his fundamental message: a positive attitude is vital for improving customer satisfaction. At SIUC, he offered a “series of activities and anecdotes” covering “the importance of taking time when answering the phone and thinking about the way people greet one another,” according to a report in the Egyptian. “He also said listening and giving things full attention could help improve relations.”

The attitude that education is, when you get right down to it, one more service industry.... this does not warm the academic heart, somehow. About 10 percent of faculty and staff actually showed up.

Now, a friend who is wise in the ways of administration/faculty relations tells me that getting 10 percent of the professoriate at a given university actually to show up for anything is about par for the course. But that figure bitterly disappointed someone at the Egyptian. It was the perfect opportunity to worry aloud about the moral example set by SIUC's educators.

“The faculty had a lecture to go to,” an editorialist opined last Wednesday. “It wasn't mandatory, but it was recommended. And valuable information -- ways to improve the quality of the university's product -- was discussed. Most of the faculty and staff decided not to attend.... Our careers as students would falter if we didn't attend long, boring lectures. The same argument applies to the employees of this university.... As students, we give the faculty and staff an F.”

That must have been fun to write. Discharging aggression against people with power over you (in this case, professors) usually is. But the editorial is also interesting for how it mimics management-speak. A motivational speaker provides “valuable information ... to improve the quality of the university’s product.” Not a hint of skepticism about the corporate rhetoric. No questioning at all of the idea that Iearning to answer the telephone in a pleasing manner will contribute to the manufacture of skilled and well-informed students.

Then again, the editorialist also seems to imply that “the university’s product” is actually “long, boring lectures.” Wouldn’t a motivational speaker increase productivity in ways that students might not appreciate -- inspiring professors to give longer, even more boring lectures?

For his part, at least, Steve Beck is anything but dull. The samples of his talks available online are ebullient, emphatic, full of gumption. The reports that he spoke “flamboyantly” at SUIC. He gave, in short, a rhetorical performance in keeping with the standards of what has now become a well-developed cultural industry -- one that now has ambitions to professionalize itself.

The closest thing to an accrediting agency for motivators is an organization called the National Speakers Association, of which Beck is a member. Its rolls now includes some 5,000 people who work full-time at it, making between $3,500 and $50,000 per speech while making the circuit of workshops, corporate retreats, and weekend seminars -- not counting the additional revenue available from creating branded lines of books, videos, and inspirational audio recordings for drivers stuck in traffic.

Still larger fees go to superstars such as Tony Robbins, whose infomercials have made his dazzlingly expansive smile and ability to walk on fire known to millions. (The fee Steve Beck accepted for 10 performances suggests that he is, as yet, an up-and-comer. Either that or $20k counts as pro bono.)

And for every motivational speaker working full-time, there may be a dozen aspirants looking for their big break. The subculture has now become enough of a fact of life to have passed into pop culture satire.  Last year’s comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” which just won the Oscar for best screenplay, includes a character who is certain his nine-step “Refuse to Lose” program will be the next big thing in the motivational field, even though it hasn’t actually helped him all that much.

It sounds like fertile territory for ethnographers and cultural historians to explore. There is already a considerable scholarly literature on the topic of self-help – not to mention the established field of Oprah studies. The world of motivational speaking might be the next frontier.

But for now, we have a recent book called Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivational Biz (Bloomsbury, 2006) by the former Playboy editor Jonathan Black -- an entertaining and well-researched survey of the workings of the industry by a participant observer. Cobbling together bits of inspirational boilerplate and some anecdotes from his own experience, he even achieves some modest success at the bush-league level of motivationalism.  

Apart from his descriptions of the process of salesmanship-of-self on display at a meeting of the National Speakers Association, Black’s account offers a look at the implicit cultural politics of the inspiration biz. It often sounds as if motivational speakers always have the same message. They are, in effect, ministers of the secular gospel of positive thinking, preaching that the one true sin is failing to believe in yourself. But the market for that message changes from time to time, and so does the message itself.

“For much of the eighties and nineties,” writes Black, “the motivation business was all about making it, self-propulsion, getting rich quick. Athletic coaches ruled, because winning wasn’t everything – it was the only thing. The lecture circuit starred corporate titans like Malcolm Forbes, Lee Iacocca, and Ted Turner.” The ethos of this period was summed up by a pace-setting speaker named Zig Ziglar (something like the Stanley Fish of the motivation world) when he titled one of his books See You at the Top.

Around the turn of the century, though, something happened -- several things, in fact. The tech bubble burst. Dubious business practices eroded corporate prestige. Murderous fanatics showed that globalization would not be all about getting and spending in peace and comfort. The old motivational messages started sounding hollow, and the market took a hit.

But not for long. “The speaker business is a hydra-headed monster,” says Black. “Lop off one topic and six new ones appear.”  

The new message was more serious. “It was time to get real,” as Black puts it, “to think about values. The good boss was the sensitive boss. Ziglar’s new book, The View from the Top, was all about being ethical and praying to God. Suffering wasn’t a blight on success, it was a badge of honor, a common experience to bind humanity.”

That phase has passed, too, it seems. The perennial theme of cheering up and taking control of your life – of making friends and influencing people – is back in full effect, as exemplified by a t-shirt Black spots while making the rounds among professional and amateur motivators: Get Your ‘But’ Out of the Way.

Words to live by, surely. And yet the question remains whether there is any significant return on the investment when a company (or university, for that matter) pays to bring in a motivational speaker. Some people in an audience may feel a little uplift -- whether from the message itself, or the vaguely standup-comedy demeanor common throughout the industry, or simply from doing something diverting during work hours. But proof that speakers actually make any difference over the long term is just not there. It seems you cannot actually buy inspiration. The most you can do is rent it.

In fact, Black cites the work of a prominent business speaker named Jason Jennings, author of a book called Less is More, who finds no relationship at all between morale and “hired” motivation.

"He and his research team have come up with an interesting fact,” notes Black. “After studying four thousand companies and rating the ten most ‘productive’ -- based on various criteria from revenue per employee to cash flow -- they found that none spent much money motivating their workers..... What works to motivate workers, he believes, is ‘an authentic cause that becomes the culture of the company.' " One example Jennings offers is IKEA, with its proclaimed devotion to "furniture for the many – not for the few, not for the rich, not for design magazines." The company’s president takes just two weeks of vacation a year, and stays at Motel 6 when he travels.

I don’t have statistics at hand about how many chancellors or provosts stay at Motel 6. It would hardly be surprising to learn that most do not. That sort of change might not be the solution to "pridelessness" or academic anomie. But there’s certainly no evidence that motivational bromides are, either.

A forceful letter appearing in the Daily Egyptian last week suggests an alternative. Responding to the news that one session by Steve Beck drew an audience of about 50, Justin Bell, a doctoral student in the philosophy department, wrote:
“Spending $20,000 on motivational speakers is absurd in the face of so many laid-off graduate assistants and deferred facilities maintenance. Let's look at what $20,000 could do that would make a difference in the actual education of students. On my estimation, it could hire two half-time graduate assistants, purchase 31 new Dell computers (assuming no discount) or pay for any number of books. I suspect we could even make a big bonfire with money that would draw more than 50 people..... All this occurs in the face of raising fees and tuition on incoming freshmen and graduate students.”

Bell goes on to write, “I am someone who feels that being a student at a university is a type of citizenship, not a type of business relationship.”

His language here is not the same as that of Jason Jennings, a corporate consultant, when the latter calls high morale the product of “an authentic cause" animating "the culture of the company.” But the sentiment is similar enough: Treat people like citizens, not like hired help -- and motivation will take care of itself. The lesson is simple, inspiring even.


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