Updated: Dec 19, 2020
We’ve all used extrinsic motivation, or what some call financial ‘carrots’ from time to time, whether it’s at work or at home. For example, getting someone to stay on to finish a project once they’ve been told their role is no longer needed at the company, or getting your kids to walk the dogs when it’s probably the last thing in the world they want to do.
But let me ask you, is it really working? Is the person staying on working hard or hardly working? Are your children giving the dogs a proper walk or are they doing the shortest walk they can possibly get away with?
I’m asking this question as too often I believe we jump right to this approach as we believe it’s going to be some sort of magic motivational tool. To illustrate this, let me share with you a story.
My son Anthony was taking his GCSE exams, which in the UK are the exams taken at age 16. Many of his friends were told they’d receive money for achieving certain grades, so of course Anthony asked if we would do the same for him. After thinking about it for about a second, I firmly said no. I didn’t say it to be an evil mother, but because I didn’t believe that I should bribe him to get good grades. He should want to get good grades for himself, and not because I was giving him money for doing so. It was his future that depended on the grades, so his motivation should be a personal and not a financial one.
I’ve seen the same thing happen in the workplace, where we automatically throw money, or extrinsic motivation, at employees thinking it’s the best way to motivate them to act or behave in a certain way. I see four key problems with this approach:
1. You can never force someone to be motivated. Motivation cannot be forced, it’s owned 100% by the individual. This may seem like common sense, but then why do so many companies throw money at employees? Do they think it will magically turn their motivation ‘switch’ on and make them work harder?
I can tell you from experience that no matter how much money I dangle in front of my children, they’re not going to magically start like walking my dogs. Yes, they’ll go through the motions, but they own the decision as to when it turns from a task to a pleasure. And the same is true with our employees.
Only your employees can decide when they want to be motivated, you can’t.
2. It can drive the wrong behaviours. When working for an office supply company, I was asked to look at the incentive program for delivery drivers. After spending a day on the road with them, I quickly saw that the current program, which was based solely on the speed of delivery, was, sorry for the pun, driving all the wrong behaviors.
It forced them to focus on doing whatever it took to get in and out, which was not only dangerous, but meant there was absolutely no customer service taking place for the drivers feared it would slow them down and thus they wouldn’t receive their incentive payment.
This example clearly shows the negative consequences financial motivators can have, and the impact they have on employees and on the business. So, think carefully before putting such programs in place, being aware up front of the behaviors they may encourage.
3. It can kill creativity. One of the best books written on this topic is “Drive” by Daniel Pink, and in it he talks about how extrinsic motivators such as incentives dull thinking, and thus blocks and kills creativity. He cites numerous studies which show evidence of this, proving that for work requiring creativity, this kind of motivation can indeed lead to poorer performance.
We need to ask ourselves, how important is creativity to the achievement of the results? If it is anything more than what Pink calls an “if-then” task, then instead of killing creativity you should really kill this kind of motivation approach.
4. When is enough ever enough? And finally, the challenge you’ll face when using financial motivators is to figure out how to keep them attractive enough to continue motivating your employees. They may be motivational at the start, but trust me, soon the excitement will wear off and you’ll need to increase the financial value or change to something else.
If you need proof of this, just watch Frans de Waal’s “monkey and cucumber” experiment, which shows what happens when one monkey’s reward is changed to a grape and the other is left with the original reward of a cucumber.
So before putting in place financial motivators, ask yourself if you’re willing to put up with constantly updating or changing what is given, for enough won’t be enough for long!
So in ending, let me say that if you love carrots like I do, put them in soups, put them in salads, give them to dogs as treats (my dogs love them), but don’t rely on them as motivation tools. Yes, they work for some jobs and some situations, but in the majority of situations in this new world of work, they cause more harm than they’re worth!