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?