Motivating the Minions

For many of us motivation is a tricky thing. Virtually everything that isn’t sitting on the couch, napping, or watching television requires some amount of motivation, and for a lot of us that motivation isn’t always there. Motivation has been a hot research topic lately, with different ideas being tested on the personal and team levels. And researchers at the “University of California, Riverside added to the body of knowledge, showing that a popular workplace motivation technique may not be as effective as we thought.

Carrot dangling from a string. A classic example of motivation.

There’s the carrot. Where’s the stick?

On the personal level, we read about how setting up habits keeps you motivated, how motivation gets stronger the more you use it (like a muscle), or how every little decision you make reduces the motivational energy you have, so you should eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch and swap out your wardrobe for seven of the same color shirts. But motivating yourself and motivating others are different games.

The first problem is that what motivates one person won’t work for another. There’s extrinsic (external) motivation, which is what’s at play when your paycheck or employment are on the line, and there’s intrinsic (internal) motivation, which is all about the work being its own reward. People fall along a continuum of motivation and quite often people will be intrinsically motivated in one area and extrinsically motivated in another. For example, an artist who draws every day for her own satisfaction but also needs a trainer or workout partner to get her into the gym.

The second problem is that sometimes motivation efforts backfire. Research on the use of monetary awards like performance pay can lead to workers putting more focus on the measurable aspects of the job while ignoring other important tasks. In addition, some workers will be tempted to try manipulating the system. These efforts often lead to a loss of motivation and productivity across the board in addition to being expensive.

Carrot and stick. Classic motivators.

Oh, there it is.

In response, some companies have moved to a system that uses non-monetary awards like an employee of the month program or awards with a small monetary value like gift cards. Although these programs are widely used, there isn’t much data on their effectiveness. This is what UCR researchers wanted to find out. They studied one company program that used a 75 dollar gift card to motivate workers to take fewer sick days. Each month a randomly chosen worker with perfect attendance would win the card.

As expected, some of the workers improved their attendance. At least they did for as long as they were eligible. After winning or otherwise becoming ineligible, workers would take more sick days, almost as if they were making up for their attempts to win the prize. At the same time, the intrinsically motivated employees at the company lost productivity. It is thought that these workers viewed the program as unfair. They were showing up to work every day, likely considering that simple act to be a baseline requirement of the job. And once others were being rewarded for something so basic the intrinsically motivated workers likely saw less value in attendance.

Further research will be needed in this area to be sure. For now though, the question is how to motivate without upsetting the already motivated. Perhaps we could build an environment where the intrinsically motivated can work without being encumbered by motivation programs. Over the years I’ve noticed that the best and most motivated folks are usually easier to work with and that their motivation is often contagious.

So maybe we’re looking at it from the wrong angle. Instead of trying to increase motivation from the outside, we should do what we can to nurture motivation from the inside and address issues that demotivate. In other words, when we see unmotivated people we should try to figure out why they lack motivation instead of throwing rewards at them. It could be that they see something as unfair or feel that they lack control.