Why your efforts at motivating your people are probably destructive


Most businesses attempt to motivate their people using the carrot and stick method: Offer rewards for things you want to see more of and punishment for anything you don’t. Why is this so popular? Simple, because it works! If you offer your team a fat bonus if they hit a target, they will probably work like mad through the night to achieve it. So conditional ‘if-then’ rewards are common at work.

But there are several inconvenient holes – gaping holes – in this accepted wisdom which science has conclusively proved, yet businesses largely have not accepted. These are covered in Daniel H. Pink’s excellent book, Drive.

For example, when you offer conditional rewards, the motivational effect is short-term. It will get your team to work harder today but not tomorrow, next month and next year. At worst it becomes like a drug and so more and more of a ‘hit’ is required to sustain performance. Also, it has been proven that people perform WORSE when a carrot is dangled in front of them because it adds pressure and distracts from the task in hand. When you offer if-then rewards, it also takes away what psychologists call ‘intrinsic motivation’ – the pleasure of actually performing the task itself. And this again reduces long-term motivation and the drive to do the absolute best you can at the task rather than just enough to get the reward.

So what actually DOES motivate people? Assuming you have a good base level of rewards (like salary and other benefits in place so that a lack of money doen’t distract from work) then there are three factors:

  1. Autonomy: People are most motivated when they have control over how to do their own work.
  2. Mastery: When people believe in their capability to improve and are able to continually do so.
  3. Connectedness: To be contributing to a higher purpose, together with others.

So the best way to motivate your people is to replace the carrot-and-stick with a culture that builds autonomy, mastery and connectedness. Then you will tap into your people’s natural drive to do great work.
This is a key reason why democratic companies perform much better than their peers. They set their people free to work in their own way to meet a higher purpose, and this brings out the best in them.

I haven’t always got this right myself. When I was managing a sales team, I deliberately avoided having commission payments for the consultants because I worried that this kind of if-then reward would be counter-productive. But with hindsight I don’t think I went far enough. We still had individual sales targets for each team member and I remember the pressure that they felt because of this. I thought it was a necessary evil, but I wonder now if I could have taken a step back, gone through the company finances with the team and allowed them to make up their own mind about how much business we needed to win and allow them to self organise and work together to meet the underlying goal of ensuring we brought in enough business. My role would have been relgated to more of a facilitator and helper, but I think we may have had better results.

If you think your company has a motivation problem or that you need some sort of ‘incentive’ scheme, then it’s possible that you are looking in the wrong place and what you really need to do is work on the culture to allow intrinsic motivation to thrive.

What have your experiences been of trying to motivate people at work or having someone else try to motivate you?

48 thoughts on “Why your efforts at motivating your people are probably destructive

  1. Pingback: Why SMART objectives aren’t always smart | Tom Nixon

  2. Really interested in your thinking here Tom. I’m really interested in how you might observe us now with an outsider’s eye as we struggle with how to improve profitability whilst also maintaining our culture.

    We’ve introduced some prioritisation to help people decide where they should be spending their time, and associated this with SMART goals, which seems in conflict with the idea of intrinsic motivation as you’ve outlined it (and also with our own past thinking).

    I wonder what you might propose for a business that believes it has a culture built around autonomy/mastery/connectedness but that also wants to encourage a greater individual focus on profitability?!

  3. It’s really tough isn’t it Jen! I’ve always been in favour of SMART objectives and only recently have I seen the flip side of the coin.

    The idea is that if you focus on autonomy, mastery and connectedness then ‘hard’ results like profit trickle down from that, which is much more effective than chasing profit directly as the goal in itself. Out of the three, I would say that NM does REALLY well on the autonomy front, very well on the connectedness front so perhaps mastery is the one to focus on. There is a huge amount of talent on the team and they generate some amazing work but I wonder how much of a focus (compared to talking about individual profitability) is being placed on having everyone on a path towards mastery in each of the areas that grow them personally and are aligned with the business strategy to deliver value to clients (profit won’t come from mastery of pruning a gooseberry bush in the garden.) If learning objectives were set around mastery and vigorously pursued by everyone then I am sure profits will follow this quite naturally. In fact it would probably be impossible not to be profitable.

    Have you got a Kindle, Jen? If so ping me an email with the email address you use for your amazon account and I will lend you Dan Pink’s book so you can read more about this stuff. It’s really well written and a very quick read. Or maybe just buy a few copies for people in the office and get ‘autonomy, mastery and connectedness’ to become something that people regularly talk about.

    Good luck! Got to go, have a date with a volcano!

  4. One more thing. There’s nothing wrong at all with measuring profitability, either individually or as a group (although the collective profit is what ultimately counts.) But what’s different is when profitability isn’t where it should be (assuming that the overall business strategy is right which at NM I believe is totally solid) instead of thinking ‘we have a profitability problem’ think ‘we have a problem somewhere with autonomy, mastery or connectedness’ and work on improving that so profit will follow. It’s a long-term game and won’t provide a quick fix but should lead to a happy, motivated workplace and financial results. What do you reckon?

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  7. Tom
    Great post and agree with a lot of what you have said. To focus just on profit and the short term rewards makes no sense. I haven’t read Drive yet and have just downloaded it so looking forward to it. The bit that is missing from the post for me and something I have been trying to get clear in my head is the motivation achieved from the drive to achieve a goal that you never thought possible to achieve. Maybe this is covered under mastery and connectedness and will make more sense when I read the book.

    It’s the Steve Jobs stuff where people were motivated to achieve exceptional things because they were pushed to do more. I realise we are all adults and shouldn’t need pushing but in my experience it can lead to exceptional performance when you are asked for more. You mention aiming for “enough business” in the post and my worry is around balancing enough with the push for the seemingly unachievable and impossible that creates amazing results. One of the positives of a target driven culture is the drive beyond enough.

    In terms of the problems with carrot and stick thinking there is a fantastic TED talk from Barry Schwartz. Well worth watching if you haven’t seen it. His appeal for practical wisdom is inspiring and a real call to action. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/barry_schwartz_on_our_loss_of_wisdom.html


    • You’re right – I didn’t cover it properly in the post but it is indeed part of mastery. It’s the notion that you can always get better and better at something, approaching but never reaching perfection. Like Tiger Woods playing golf. He’s never going to get 18 holes-in-one. Rather than this being a demotivating factor it’s inspiring because you can always go further. Thanks for the TED link – will watch this today if my Ecuadorian net connection and lame netbook can handle it!
      Would love to hear what you think of Drive. I miss our book recommendation swapping Will, we must start this up again. Although new stuff I like is always featured in posts on this blog.

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