Sustaining the Motivation to Excel

I got pushback yesterday on a presentation I did on motivation.  I was challenging sacred cows, and a number of the business people present didn’t like it.

My central message:  if you want long-term quality, creativity, team-playing, and initiative in the workplace, “do-this-and-you’ll-get-that” incentives don’t work. What do they work for?

  • performance of routine tasks: if you’re filling out paperwork and I give you a dollar for every form successfully completed, you’ll do it faster.
  • controlling people in the short term: if you’re habitually showing up late, and I fine you for it, you’ll stop (or you’ll cheat the time-card system).

But these kinds of “if/then” rewards don’t produce sustainable motivation — especially for higher-level work habits. That has to live inside the employee.

Incentives for performance focus the mind on the reward, not on the performance.  They thus encourage cheating, short-cutting, and hoarding my knowledge and skills so I’m the one who gets the prize.

Even worse, they actually reduce interest in the work being performed. Why?  If I bribe you for doing something (or threaten you for not doing it), I’m telling you that “something” isn’t worth doing for its own sake.  Fined for showing up late, I’ll quickly learn to hate the time clock and resent getting to work on time.  I’ll do it, but I’ll resent it.  It’s human nature.  And not the best attitude for employees to carry into work.

You get sustainable motivation by:

  1. building the connections that employees feel — with their boss, with their team, with the mission of the organization
  2. giving them a say in their own destiny, choices throughout their day, to whatever extent possible given the constraints they must work under.

To the first point:  If I feel a sense of belonging at work — that’s motivation that can’t be bought.

To the second:  choices = freedom.  What humans don’t need freedom?  With as much freedom as I can be trusted with, I can express my best self at work in ways that make me feel proud.  That’s sustainable, and it doesn’t need a reward.

Recognition?  Appreciation?  They’re essential.  Earned promotions and pay raises?  Of course.  Everyone deserves to be treated fairly according to their contribution.  But these strategies are all after the fact, and they’re authentic.  They’re not, “If you be a good boy, I’ll give you a goody.” That’s called manipulation.  What humans enjoy being manipulated?

YOUR PATH FORWARD: Read one or both of these two classic, highly readable overviews of decades of motivational research — Drive, by Daniel Pink, and Punished By Rewards, by Alfie Kohn — and then tell me if you disagree that do-this-and-you’ll-get-that style “incentives” are overrated.  Fact is, they are counterproductive to the long-term thriving of your organization.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

3 thoughts on "Sustaining the Motivation to Excel"

  1. Karen Mueller says:

    Working in an organization that’s in a death spiral, I couldn’t agree with you more. I love both 1 & 2. Fortunately, I now how a boss and his boss who are trying to build connections with us. Not sure it will help the rest of them. Thank you for your great writing.

    1. Steve Motenko says:

      Whoa! Karen! So sorry to hear your org is in a “death spiral”! Need a fabulous consultant or two to come in and save y’all from the guillotine?? ;~> Well, I’m glad your boss is on the right track, anyway …

      Thanks for the compliment. Hope you’re doing well!

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