Motivation: How does it work anyway?
02 Mar 2017

Motivation: How does it work anyway?


categories: Motivation

Blog from James Wilkinson exploring how motivation works. View it on LinkedIn.

Last night, I overheard my wife talking to her brother on the phone. She was telling him about my new job; how much I seemed to be enjoying it. She noted how I was energised and motivated in a way she hadn’t seen in a long time. Two things occurred to me;

  1. She’s right
  2. What is it that has caused this motivation and passion I have found for the new direction I’ve started in?

Thinking it through, it soon became clear to me that, for the first time in an age, I am doing something that is interesting for me. More than that, helping other people to develop themselves through experiential learning is making me feel that I am part of something bigger – a higher purpose if you will.

That nagging feeling you’ve forgotten something important…

This was reminding me of something and, after some soul searching, I remembered what it was. A while ago, I listened to a great TED Talk by Dan Pink on the puzzle of motivation. Dan is a social scientist and, in this talk, he questions the reason that most businesses are still offering a carrot and stick approach to motivation even when countless studies have shown that it doesn’t work. When it comes to cognitive tasks, giving rewards to people based on performance isn’t effective. In fact, studies consistently prove that people offered lower or no rewards for the same task perform better or faster.

Most businesses are still offering a carrot and stick approach to motivation even when countless studies have shown that it doesn’t work.

Why does this happen? Well, according to Dan, giving a reward only works for simple, mechanical tasks. The reward focuses the mind in a way that is unhelpful when you need to think more creatively to find a solution. This isn’t just his theory either, there’s evidence to back it up.

The case for the prosecution

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University. Dan has done many studies into the nature of motivation. My favourite study is the one he did at an Intel factory in Israel, where they split employees into four groups. Three groups were offered incentives to increase their productivity each day, consisting of either cash, pizza or a compliment from their boss. In order to create a control group, the fourth group was offered nothing. The employees were making computer chips, which made the results easy to measure.

Which group do you think was more productive?

On day 1 it was pizza, with compliments a close second. By the end of the experiment, the compliments had edged it, but those two were very close. What was shocking though, was that the group who were offered a cash incentive performed worse than the control group, meaning that offering a cash incentive was worse than no incentive at all!

And all of that means what exactly?

What is this telling us? At its basest level, I think it’s showing us that how much we feel appreciated and feel part of a higher purpose, are better motivators than money or prestige. Dan Pink goes on to talk about three main motivators for the 21st-century economy, based on intrinsic motivation (doing things because they make us feel good when we do them – my interpretation!):

  • The urge to have the Autonomy to rule our own lives.
  • The desire to Master a skill.
  • The yearning to do something that feels like it is serving a higher Purpose.

What about my own motivation? Well, in my new role I have been given the autonomy to decide how I spend much of time to reach my goals. I have been given an opportunity to master a skill that I want – coaching others – and I am doing something that I believe in, that I believe will both help me develop and help others to develop themselves as well.

Anyone for lunch?

If you’d like to find out more about what I’m learning to do – and meet some of the amazing team at ProfitAbility that have already mastered their craft – please come and join us at one of our workshops. You can play our business simulation games for yourself and feel the impact of learning by doing. It’s free, and we’ll spot lunch.

How does motivation work?

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