The Sometimes Not-so-subtle Art of Motivation
Alec Baldwin’s name has been in the news recently due to a horrific tragedy. 30 years ago, however, he was the toast of the town, having delivered a memorable performance in the now cult classic, Glengarry Glen Ross. Baldwin’s brash character, Blake, opens the movie with an obscenity-laden tirade. He’s on a “mission of mercy”, “from Mitch and Murray”, laying into a trio of worn-down real estate agents played by Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, and Ed Harris. His goal: to get them to close deals.
To do so, he employs a number of tactics, relying heavily on both the carrot and the stick. One such carrot: “Coffee’s for closers only,” he yells at Jack Lemmon’s character, Shelley. Blake plays upon the salesmen’s competitiveness by showing off how much he can sell, as well as how well he’s been compensated for his work. “You drove a Hyundai to get here tonight,” he barks at Dave, played by Ed Harris. “I drove an $80,000 BMW.” Both his language and tactics would be considered old school today. Here’s why psychology says they’re ineffective.
Blake informs the salesmen that they’re fired, but then gives them a week to earn back their jobs. They all understand that if they don’t perform, they are to “hit the bricks.” Blake has given them a wonderful example of an avoidance goal; the trio will now do all they can to avoid getting canned. Avoidance goals, however, tend to decrease well-being and even lead to depression over time.
Blake’s other means of persuasion, too, fall short of success. Both the Cadillac Eldorado and the set of steak knives the company offers to the two top salesmen are forms of extrinsic rewards. Extrinsic motivation is great for short-term use, but over the long term, intrinsic motivation is better. Finding motivation from within usually leaves us feeling more fulfilled. Judging by what we see from the opening scene of the film, our salesmen lack this fulfillment. Too many months of steak knife offerings have left them numb.
In fact, offering external rewards for an internally rewarding task can diminish intrinsic motivation. This is known as the overjustification effect. At one point, the art of the sale most likely filled them with excitement. The constant flow of external rewards, however, most likely have left them feeling like pawns. Blake’s tirade epitomizes this treatment. They are neither seen, nor valued as individuals. They are simply a means to an end. You close the deal, or you go home.
Picture of this Cadillac Eldorado courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Baldwin’s character, Blake, was an effective wielder of both the carrot and stick. The actor himself, however, apparently salivated at the opportunity to play the role. He was quoted as saying, “I've read 25 scripts and nothing is as good as this,”1 before agreeing to do the film. That sounds like internal motivation to me, and it shows in Baldwin’s resonating performance. In fact, all of the top name actors accepted less than their usual in order to perform Pulitzer Prizewinner David Mamet’s script. However, getting them all to sign on the line that is dotted wasn’t entirely straightforward. No doubt, after the back-and-forth and the ink had dried, the film’s brass had their coffee.