3 Ways You’re Unintentionally Killing Motivation

Help people align their work with meaningful value and purpose—not a gift card.
June 2, 2016

It’s vacation season. So you rally your team to go the extra mile by dangling a trip to Mexico in front of their noses. Excitement swells. But as soon as the winner is announced, it’s back to the status quo. Until next year.

It might be hard to swallow, but contests, prizes and incentives are probably having the opposite effect you want. Instead of improving people’s motivation, you could be eroding it.

Related: What to Do When Rewards and Incentives Don’t Work

Are you open to trying something different?

Challenging the “tried-and-true” leadership tactics might feel risky, but, just for a moment, consider the alternatives:

1. Stop resorting to contests, prizes and incentives.

These can distract people from the legitimate and lasting motivation to do what you are asking them to.

The science of motivation shows being distracted by prizes and incentives actually undermines people’s three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence.

  • Attaching a reward to a request shifts attention to something they cannot control—winning the prize—and undermines their sense of autonomy.
  • Competition pits individual against individual. It creates a scenario where you’re left with a bunch of disappointed losers and one winner—it undermines a sense of relatedness. The prize diverts the focus away from the value, purpose and fun of the activity, further diminishing relatedness.
  • Competition pressures people not to be their best, but the best. Pressure not only results in thwarting people’s autonomy, but it also undermines creativity, performance, and if they don’t win, their sense of competence.

Reframe what you need in a meaningful or compelling way. Don’t distract people by encouraging them to keep their eye on a prize that might never come. Help people align what’s being asked of them to meaningful values or purpose. People will be rewarded in more meaningful ways than any prize you can afford. Better yet, everyone ends up winning.

2. Avoid ego-stroking praise.

Neuroscience imaging shows praising stimulates the reward-center of your brain—this isn’t a good thing. Rewards have a detrimental effect on productivity, sustainable performance and overall well-being. Praising—an intangible reward—can have the same eroding effect.

Example: “Sara, I am proud of you for getting this report done ahead of time. It makes my life much easier. I hope you will be this timely in the future.”

Praising—information cloaked in your personal approval—might appear to work, but it works for the wrong reasons. Praise triggers a person’s desire to please you or to avoid feelings of guilt, shame or fear. Neither outcome is effective. If the reason for people’s motivation is to please you, then their behavior is dependent on your continued praise. This is a burden to you, but it can be debilitating to the person whose development is stunted by their external need for your approval.

Wean people from their dependence on your praise by giving pure feedback. Feedback gives people the choice to continue acting wisely, deepens their sense of contribution and connection, and validates their competence. Help people develop their own capacity for self-evaluation and correction. Avoid cloaking developmental information with your pride in them, your need for their continued behavior or personal opinions.

3. Ditch the babysitting habit.

Do you feel like you need to hold people accountable? Why? Do you think they underperform because they’re lazy or irresponsible? The science of motivation provides an alternate perspective worth considering: Our basic human nature is to thrive. People do not want to be bored and disengaged. They want to contribute, do worthwhile work, and grow and learn every day.

Many people internalize accountability measures as a form of pressure that restricts their sense of autonomy—an indicator of mistrust that erodes relatedness and a statement about their competence (or lack thereof). These interpretations erode basic psychological needs that promote optimal motivation. Ironically, accountability measures may be promoting poor performance. Imagine how the workplace might be different if we realized that people don’t want to be held accountable, but people want to be accountable.

If you need to hold underperformers accountable, look in the mirror and ask why. Double check to see if your leadership has provided underperformers with:

  • Adequate training.
  • Appropriate leadership style given their level of development.
  • SMART goals, where the M stands for motivation based on important values, purpose or intrinsic enjoyment.
  • Fair and just systems.

People are motivated by the promise of rewards, praising and programs designed to hold them accountable—but for all the wrong reasons. These tactics undermine people’s psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence. Consider putting the new science of motivation to work. Instead of unintentionally eroding workplace motivation, promote people’s optimal motivation, high-quality productivity and sustainable performance.

Related: How To: Nurture the Personal Growth of Your People

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