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As a leader, how important is it to know what really motivates people?

Answer—pretty darn important!

In today’s post, we are going to discuss what research says truly motivates people, and some of the all-to-common mistakes that most leaders and managers have been making for decades, despite the science.

Rhesus monkeys

Harry Harlow was a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in the 1940s.

In 1949, he conducted a famous experiment during which he placed a simple puzzle (with a pin, hook, and latch) into cages with rhesus monkeys.

They immediately discovered something interesting, the monkeys began solving the puzzles very quickly.

Up until that time, scientists believed that two basic drives powered behavior.

The first obvious drive was biological needs like hunger, thirst, or sex.

The second drive was rewards or punishments used to generate motivation.

But neither of these had been present in this experiment.

The monkeys simply seemed interested in solving the puzzles because they enjoyed doing them. They appeared to be focused and determined.

This experiment caused Harlow to offer a new theory about a third possible drive—“The performance of the task provided its own intrinsic reward.”

In other words, the monkeys were motivated to solve the puzzles because they found the act of solving the puzzle psychologically gratifying and stimulating. And if this applies to monkeys, obviously it applies to humans even more.

Now here is where it gets really interesting. Harlow figured if they offered the monkeys a food reward (raisins), that the monkeys would perform even better, but the opposite occurred.

The food reward actually harmed performance, causing the monkeys to make more errors and solve the puzzles less frequently.

Harlow’s experiment had discovered something with profound implications for understanding human motivation, but the scientific community refused the idea so vehemently, that Harlow dropped this line of research for the rest of his life.

It was not until 1969 when a psychology graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University named Edward Deci continued where Harlow had left off. Deci was a brilliant student who had already earned his MBA from Wharton school of business.

Without going into all the details of Deci’s experiment, I will simplify the explanation a bit.

Deci conducted an experiment using the then-famous Soma Puzzle Cubes by Parker Brothers. Participants in the study were asked to replicate certain configurations by combining the puzzle cubes to make a shape displayed on a card. He had them assemble puzzles for three days in a row.

Here is the twist—he paid one of the groups but not the other to do the puzzles.

Group one received pay only on day two (so on day one they got no pay, on day two they got pay, and on day three they got no pay again). The second group never received any pay.

In short—the paid group showed an immediate boost in motivation when paid, but then displayed less motivation in the long run when the pay was taken away—than the unpaid group.

Here is the fascinating conclusion of the study in Deci’s own words, “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity. Rewards deliver a short-term boost—just like a jolt of caffeine can keep you working for a few more hours. But the effect wears off—and worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue a project.” (Pink, 2009)

Prior to this experiment, no one expected rewards would have a negative effect on performance!

I often hear state managers say that they cannot really motivate people because they don’t have control over how much they can pay people. But this study provides some robust evidence that other tools can often be even more powerful that money. This should be good news for government leaders reading this post.

In his 2009 New York Times Bestseller—Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us—author Daniel Pink masterfully debunks many of the antiquated strategies currently being used to motivate people.

I highly recommend his book, which has profound implications for how we lead others, and motivate children at home or in school.

Most modern businesses are still using strategies to motivate people that are decades (if not a century) outdated.

Here are seven flaws to using rewards and punishments:

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation
  2. They can harm performance
  3. They can kill creativity (people are less likely to think outside the box if they are only trying to get the grade or money)
  4. They can decrease ethical behavior (i.e. I’ll do it for the money but not simply because it’s the right thing to do for my character development)
  5. They encourage shortcuts and unethical behavior (i.e. to get the reward faster)
  6. They can become addictive
  7. They can harm long range thinking

“Human beings,” Deci said, “have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.”

Doesn’t this describe most children?

Perhaps, somewhere along the line, we have inadvertently demotivated kids and employees as they grow older, through our flawed understanding of what will really motivate someone.

The research is clear, rewarding people the wrong way can extinguish natural motivation— especially over time.

This is probably why Love & Logic Parenting Solutions teaches parents not to pay your kids for every household chore. Instead, they recommend that you help your kids feel like part of the family team, helping them feel like they are making a valuable contribution to the tribe.

This is not to say that rewards or punishments should never be used. But you need to understand that they are not the only way, nor may they be the most effective way, to motivate people.

Turn information into action—Three essential ways to supercharge intrinsic motivation

What we really want to do as leaders, parents, or teachers—is to learn to stoke or re-ignite the fire of intrinsic motivation we were all born with.

Daniel Pink has modified the work of psychologists Deci and Ryan (self-determination theory) into three vital strategies: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

  1. Autonomy: Research clearly shows that autonomy is a fundamental human need. It means that people’s well-being, life satisfaction, and motivation soar when they feel they have some control and influence over their circumstances. If you are in a position of leadership, you need to be leveraging this strategy. Here are a few ideas: Give people some control or flexibility with their schedules. Tell people the outcome you want, but let them find the way to solve the problem or set their own deadlines whenever possible. The American Psychological Association recommends as one of the five practices of the psychologically healthy workplace, to let employees have input into policies and practices in their work setting as much as you can. You could conduct surveys or use an employee suggestion box—and make it anonymous to give people more freedom to speak up. If giving your team more freedom scares you, go back and read Daniel Pinks book packed with research on successful companies who have implemented these strategies. Love & Logic parenting teaches to give away as much control as you can. Let kids make as many benign choices as possible every day, so that when it comes time for you to tell them to do something, you’ve already let them make hundreds of choices. This also reinforces the notion that they have influence over their lives and can take action when they are unsatisfied.
  2. Mastery: Rockstar employees want to know they are getting better and better in their field every day. They don’t want to be in a place of employment where they are stagnating and becoming less competitive in the marketplace as time marches on. Great training and mentorship is a huge incentive and motivator for top tier team members. Leadership experts like John Maxwell or executive coach Daniel Harkavy really encourage leaders to help people become who they want to be professionally and personally. It’s a major retention tool. I’m proud to say that every year, we hire some of the top forensic psychologists in the world to come train our team. In our annual job surveys, people unsurprisingly list the expert training we provide as a key reason they love working for our team. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a very small investment that is a huge driver of employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention—all of which save a lot of money in the long run. And I have to mention parenting again here. No one likes to do things they aren’t good at for very long. Love & Logic argues that confidence in children comes from struggling with, and improving, their abilities with challenging tasks. So the concept of helping our children develop Mastery in various areas of life is also vital.
  3. Purpose: People have an innate desire to be part of something meaningful, something impactful, and something greater than themselves. Its your job as the leader to keep sharing the vision and purpose of your organization, and continue illustrating how people’s jobs—no matter how small—are playing a role in the overall mission of the organization. For example, I recently heard that the head of NASA used to tell the janitors, “you aren’t cleaning toilets, your helping put people on the moon” because they couldn’t run NASA without clean bathrooms of course. Another famous happiness study showed that hospital janitorial staff that looked at their jobs as providing a very important service to sick patients by cleaning their rooms every day—had much higher job satisfaction. The study implies that people can be trained to change their perspective, without changing jobs, to see their job in a more positive light. As a leader, its your job to help your team members do this—or find a more suitable job inside or outside your team.

It’s worth mentioning that if you are reading this and you are not in a formal position of leadership, you can take it upon yourself to talk to your boss about ways that you might increase your own autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Or look for workplaces that advocate these practices in your next job search.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed articles, check out The Next Peak Podcast where Parker co-hosts every other episode.

Want more? Suggested Resources

  1. Drive by Daniel Pink
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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