A few years ago I was talking to a manager who expressed his frustration with the lack of rewards and incentives he was able to give to his team when they performed well. Being an advocate of healthy motivation in workplace environments, I asked him to tell me more about his team and workplace.
It didn’t take long to learn that his understanding of motivation was “carrot and stick” oriented. He believed that people give greater effort only when they are trying to achieve some sort of incentive or reward. Unfortunately, he as well as many other leaders, misunderstand motivation and are missing a very important element of human motivation.
Yes, a person’s motivation can be increased when there is a reward linked to the behavior. This is certainly a tactic that can be effective. But it is limited. It’s actually very limited and can easily backfire on you.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink explains three types of motivational drives. Two of them are very familiar to us. The first drive is the biological drive of motivation which includes eating, drinking, and keeping ourselves safe from harm.
The second drive is motivation through reward and punishment. This is foundational to human psychology and has been studied for decades.
Then there is a third drive that is purpose-oriented and it drives us to do things that are interesting, fun, and congruent with our values. This drive is often overlooked because it takes work, time to understand and utilize it effectively.
While the first drive is natural and automatic, the second drive has become the default thinking of too many company leaders. Over the past four or five decades companies have plowed billions of dollars into reward and incentive programs. Unfortunately, many companies have realized that this approach is short-lived when applied as the only motivation system and came with some major drawbacks. They found that many bonus and incentive programs escalated as people satiate on current rewards and entitlement began to create a greater demand for more and better rewards.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying rewards and incentives are not effective. There is a place for this type of system, but it must be used appropriately, in conjunction with a “third drive” approach, and used with great caution. Several research studies have explained the negative impact of rewards when applied haphazardly. These negative outcomes include unfair or unequal application, increased sense of entitlement, decreased engagement and performance when incentive programs are withdrawn, and decreased intrinsic motivation among many others problems.
The potential for a decrease of intrinsic motivation on the part of employees is a significant issue. Even when an incentive program is applied effectively, there is evidence that it can move a person from being intrinsically motivated (inwardly driven) to extrinsically motivated (needing a reward to perform well or at all).
This isn’t a good thing because extrinsically motivated people will always want a reward. When the reward or incentive is removed, motivation and energy to continue the behavior or maintain the performance level will decrease and motivation will always be an uphill battle. This means the leader or organization will always be dependent on incentive programs and other means to maintain the fragile state of extrinsic motivation.
I’ve worked with companies that have a long history of using only a reward-based system to drive performance and loyalty. The level of true commitment and drive for employees to do their best becomes is determined by the reward given. This dynamic permeates the culture and results in a mindset of selfishness and a “what can I get” mentality.
You can see why Susan Fowler, author of the book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does, calls extrinsic motivation or rewards oriented approaches “junk food motivation.” The analogy is fitting. Incentive programs can work, yet can be accompanied by unhealthy results. It is often effective in the short-term, but it becomes difficult to sustain over time.
So what’s the solution for supporting workplace motivation? Well, it really depends on your environment. Research shows that work that is more redundant and take less thinking can utilize the second drive rewards system more successfully without as many negative side-effects. However, employers whose work is more knowledge-based and requires greater thinking and planning need an environment that uses a third drive intrinsic approach. This doesn’t mean you can’t use a rewards approach, it just means that if you want to support the healthy and natural motivation of professional employees, you need to be utilizing an intrinsic approach to maintain the intrinsic drive and self-direction to get optimal performance.
If you are interested in knowing how to use a third drive approach, here are a couple blog articles I have written on the subject that you might find helpful.
You can also read my book 28 Days to a Motivated Team. It provides many practical examples of how you can effectively support the motivation of employees and help them unleash the best in themselves.