What You Need to Know About Motivation in the Workplace

Written by
George Dickson
George Dickson

Most leaders want motivated employees. Motivated employees maintain higher morale, performance, and productivity. But what if your employee motivation program had the opposite effect on productivity?

By better understanding workplace motivation, you can dramatically improve the programs you implement to drive motivation and engagement.

The "carrot and stick" approach to motivation

Most managers are familiar with the carrot and stick approach to workplace motivation. This method blends rewards (the carrot) with punishment (the stick) to induce a desired behavior (such as getting a mule to pull a cart).

Dangling a carrot in front of a mule entices the mule to move forward for a bite—thus rewarding the mule for moving forward. At the same time, the mule moves away from the stick, avoiding punishment. If the mule doesn't move forward, there's no reward, and it gets struck by the stick.

Many leaders use a carrot and stick approach to motivation in the workplace, and those who do are overlooking one crucial point: employees aren't mules.

Unless your goal is pulling a cart, it's unlikely to benefit from carrot-and-stick motivation.

Are your motivators counterproductive?

If you want your employees to produce more widgets, make more sales calls, close more deals, or complete a project ahead of schedule and under budget, it's common to offer a bonus or some other reward in return for those outcomes. That can work for uncomplicated rote tasks, but it has the unfortunate potential to punish employees for doing great work that doesn't fit that description.

Although your rewards program may not feature a formal "punishment" component, there's a chance you'll uncover some unintentional punishments within it if you look closely.

For example, if you only reward your salespeople for exceeding a predefined sales quota, someone who went above and beyond to solve a customer's problem may feel under appreciated, despite her heroic efforts. That employee might be passed over for a promotion, might not get a raise at their next performance review, or even lose your job due to her 'poor' performance.

It's important to understand what motivates employees, what de-motivates them, and where your employee motivation program fits in.

Two types of motivators

Motivators fall into two general categories: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is defined as "not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside."

External factors like tangible rewards or managerial pressure are examples of extrinsic motivators in the workplace. Extrinsic motivation isn't sufficient to motivate employees alone, because external factors have a variable meaning amongst different people.

Intrinsic motivation is defined as "belonging naturally; essential."

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. Someone who is intrinsically motivated performs an action or behavior because he or she enjoys it, or feels internally compelled to. Videos like these are designed to inspire intrinsic motivation.

Imagine two administrative assistants: Chris, who loves the written word, and Pat, who dislikes writing. Chris would likely be intrinsically motivated to write the company newsletter each month but Pat wouldn't be. If you incentivized the writing, Pat might respond if the reward were worth it, but then again, might not.

The key to effective motivation in the workplace is understanding the different types of motivation, and how they work in practice.

Simple extrinsic motivators are often problematic

In his TedTalk, The Puzzle of Motivation, Dan Pink discussed two studies that found that financial incentives can have a negative effect on performance.

In one study by Dan Ariely, MIT students were offered small, medium, and large rewards for performing various tasks. The study found rewarding the subjects for simple mechanical tasks worked as expected. However, once tasks involve cognitive skills, larger rewards resulted in poorer performance.

This study was repeated elsewhere with consistent results: those offered medium rewards performed about the same as those offered low rewards while those offered the highest rewards performed the worst of all.

He also mentioned a London School of Economics study which examined 51 studies of companywide pay-for-performance plans. The conclusion:

We find that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.

What is most effective

Intrinsic motivators like autonomy, mastery, and purpose can have a massive impact on overall motivation in the workplace.

Autonomy is the right or condition of self-government, or as Pink says, "the urge to direct our own lives."

Mastery is the deep understanding and skillful application of something that's important to us.

Purpose is our "reason for being." People want to be a part of something larger and meaningful.

So, if extrinsic motivation has a potentially negative impact on creative thinking, performance, and intrinsic motivation yields positive rewards for both the company and its employees, it makes sense to examine your motivation programs, and replace unsophisticated carrot-and-stick techniques in favor of initiatives that also foster a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

If you're looking for an easy and balanced way to support employee motivation, peer-to-peer recognition is a great way to do that, because it naturally balances intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for excellent results.

If you're ready to learn more about peer recognition, check out our latest eBook:

Getting the Most from Peer Recognition

Originally published on June 26, 2015 → Last updated April 25, 2019

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George Dickson

George is dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures with thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition. George formerly managed content and community at Bonusly.


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