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?
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:
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.