It is a myth that managers motivate their staff. Surely, says Robert Keys, it's the other way round

It is an axiom of almost all management textbooks that managers motivate staff. This is believed to be one of the prime functions of managers and an essential justification of their role. Without managers, so the myth runs, staff would be lacking in motivation and direction. An organisation's functions would be impaired as its most important resource, its staff, underperformed out of lethargy and lack of commitment. The purpose of managers is to introduce motivation: in this way staff can be made to stretch themselves and reach their required goals and organisations can go on to achieve.

If the myth were true, this alone would justify the large sums managers are often paid. But despite being widely believed it is almost wholly false: managers contribute very little to motivation within organisations.

Of course, motivation itself is crucially important. The difference between an effective and an ineffective organisation may well be the degree of motivation of the workforce. But where does that motivation come from? Staff, in the health service as elsewhere, are all motivated by much the same factors: money, position, status, the need for esteem, the need to be part of an interactive work environment. Above all, people need the meaningful and socially valued activity that work, almost alone, provides. Behind motivation stand people's families, homes, the allure of success, the dread of failure.

In the NHS, we are immensely lucky in that another very powerful motivator operates - the desire to help patients get well. In few other work environments is the altruistic motive so strong.

All of these are very powerful motivators indeed. But they result from the inter-relation of an inner compulsion and drive and are not susceptible to control by managers.

Good staff are self-motivated, and managers can add very little to their drive. Presented with poorly motivated staff the best manager cannot transform them into a well-motivated workforce. The manager may be able to use disciplinary measures to make staff meet a particular level of performance. This, however, is not comparable to an inner drive and is unlikely to mean excellent performance. It is coercion, not motivation.

Does this mean that managers have nothing to contribute to motivation? Not at all. Managers are the gate-keepers to any organisation. They largely control the recruitment of staff. Good managers have the ability to select the right person for the right type of job. As well as the appropriate package of skills this usually means a level of self-motivating energy. Poor managers, and there are many of them, lack the ability to select self-motivators and their organisations suffer accordingly.

Once staff have joined the organisation, their manager's contribution to motivation diminishes sharply. As a top manager of a high-performing organisation summed up his secret for success: 'First I appoint good staff, then I get out of their way.'1 What he was expressing was his intuitive knowledge that managers mostly hinder high-performers. This can be proved by a simple test. Ask yourself if your manager motivates you. If they left would your work drive be impaired in any way? For most people the question is absurd. Whatever motivates them, it is not their boss.

Behind the belief that managers motivate staff lies an outmoded view of organisational structure. This view sees organisations as a pyramid with staff at the bottom and managers at the top. As well as having more skills and leadership ability (and higher pay), the people at the top have the ability to motivate those at the bottom.

Like many false theories, this is closer to the truth if it is reversed and the pyramid turned upside down. It is a far truer axiom that customers motivate staff who motivate managers than that managers motivate staff.

If you still doubt this, arrange to visit a ward in your local hospital. I chose the cancer ward. It was a terrible, moving, but somehow dignified sight. Those patients certainly motivated the staff. Watching staff care for the patients supplied the inspiration to move mountains. Recognising this is the first step towards managerial humility.

Humility can be a way to wisdom. The next time you as a manager are asked how you motivate your staff, say: 'I don't - they motivate me'.