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What is wrong with the normal approach to motivation?

Motivation in the status quo misses the point. It strives to get the most out of people through a stick and carrot approach: incentives as a reward and punishments as a deterrent. Unfortunately, science has been telling us for decades that this kind of motivation is very limiting within organisations, especially considering the complex environment we work in today. Let’s break this down:

Motivation - a brief introduction

To understand the issue, we must first recognise these two types of motivation:

  • Extrinsic motivation
    The application of external influence, such as punishment and reward, to get someone to act as desired, e.g. “If you do x then you will receive y”.
  • Intrinsic motivation
    The application of internal influence, such as the pursuit of meaning or creative expression for the sheer joy or purpose of it.

Hyper faith in extrinsic motivation is the norm and the root of the problem

Extrinsic motivation dominates our default approach to motivation. The very fact that we ask: “how do we motivate people” i.e. “how do I get someone else to do something I want them to” is a case in point. This type of motivation -  often conditioned by “if you do x then you will receive y” - has been shown to work (to a limited degree) in simplistic scenarios where the tasks are very basic, repetitive and little emotional or intellectual engagement is required. But this no longer fits the context of our working landscape, where even the most mechanical of jobs can either benefit from human engagement or be automated. Academic studies have repeatedly shown extrinsic motivation to be unreliable and resulting in poorer long-term performance. Perhaps most damaging of all, it even reduces the intrinsic motivation that originally existed for any given task, particularly when the promised financial reward is applied.

As Daniel Pink says: “Pay your son to take out the trash and you’ve pretty much guaranteed the kid will never do it again for free.”

Why is extrinsic motivation so pervasive?

It starts young

Most schools, even primary schools, rely heavily on extrinsic motivational approaches, for both staff and pupils. So it is not the case that extrinsic motivation just shows up at work when we join a company. By the time we start work we are as good as indoctrinated into this way of thinking.

It works, kind of

We all have experience of extrinsic motivation achieving what we want it to. Our toddlers behave for those sweets; our teenagers do homework or face detention; and, our colleagues pursue those goals for a bonus. So we are almost predisposed to believe that it applies unilaterally. But it is the cost of those actions that is the problem; “success” in those scenarios is very narrow and brief at best. Our toddlers don’t learn to make choices, our teenagers stop learning for the joy and mastery of it, and our colleagues prioritise their contract over organisational purpose.

It’s appealing

We have a tendency to assume that whilst we don’t require external motivation and management, ‘other people’ do. 80% of us believe we are in the top 25% of performers for our role, and 25% of us even put ourselves in the top 1%! This is a fallacy we are happy to feed with our motivational beliefs. It serves our sense of superiority. And it makes sense of the huge resources invested in motivating staff and training managers.

Why is this such a problem?

If we want engagement, ownership and creativity, then trying to ‘manage and motivate’ in the traditional sense will be self-defeating. Not only will it not work over the long term, but it will also gradually strip employees of the willingness to contribute at all. In addition to the indirect cost of engagement, there is a direct financial cost as well. Under extrinsically motivating scenarios, once we have become accustomed to a particular level of reward, that reward loses its motivational bite. As such, we constantly need more of it to stay motivated. In the case of workplaces, this means a constant ratcheting up of pay is required to appease an employee.

So, what do we do instead?

In purpose-led organisations, we choose to recognise the truth that human beings want to express themselves through contribution, particularly if it’s towards something they deem meaningful. In other words, they are happier and more effective when intrinsically motivated. Therefore, given the right environment and a task they can care about, they will perform well without the threat of punishment or the promise of reward.

See: "How do we motivate people in a Human Organisation?"

“There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does”

Daniel Pink

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  1. John Featherby

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