The puzzle of motivation


Motivation — the reason for any action, the push that determines us to act toward a desired goal. Motivation gets us moving, it gives purpose and direction to our behavior. But how does it act?

Science says

Ever since the 1960s, scientists and psychologists have known that there are two different ways of motivating a person: intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators.

Intrinsic motivators are things we do simply because we value them in and of themselves, they bring us joy, satisfaction and peace — such as hobbies, vacations, games, even a job that we would still do even if we weren’t paid for it. Extrinsic motivators are things we do not necessarily do because we like or want to, but because we’ll obtain something in return — money, admiration, favors, superior status, etc.: we go to a certain job because we have to pay rent, buy food, raise our children; we strive to obtain the best results in a company just to make our colleagues jealous and impress the boss; we buy a big house and a nice car only so the neighbors will think we are well off. This rival set of values — intrinsic and extrinsic — exists in all of us. Nobody is completely driven by one or the other.

However, numerous studies have shown that achieving intrinsic goals improves our happiness, whereas accomplishing extrinsic objectives has absolutely no influence on our overall joy. And yet, most of us, most of the time, chase extrinsic goals — the very thing that will bring us nothing at all. Our entire culture is built around this manner of thinking: we must obtain the highest grades, hunt for the best-paid jobs, climb the social and professional ladder, show our worth through our clothes and belongings. Intrinsic values are an essential part of our human nature, but they are extremely fragile, and we are easily distracted from them by the environment and the society we live in. Therefore, we are witnessing a discrepancy between what science knows and what business does.

Reward and punishment

Today’s economy and businesses are oriented toward the reward-and-punishment method: shorten the deadline and you will get a bonus, work longer hours and you will get a raise, strive more than anyone and you will get a promotion; or, on the other hand, miss one day of work and we’ll cut it out of your paycheck, fail the deadline and you’ll be moved to another team/project/department, become less efficient and you’ll be demoted.

However, this “carrots or sticks” approach seems to fail in the 21st century, although it worked great in the 20th century. It is still efficient in some cases nowadays, but not all: incentives work for simple tasks, with clear rules and a definite end point, namely routine, mechanical, left-hand brain kinds of tasks: accounting, research, computer programming, etc.

When it comes to right-brain, complex, creative, conceptual, cognitive tasks, rewards no longer work, because they dull thinking and block creativity, by narrowing our focus, concentrating our minds and restricting our possibilities — we cannot see outside of the box, because our eyes and mind and fixated on extrinsic motivators, on that certain benefit we will obtain if only we can solve the task at hand, by whatever means. In experiments all over the world, higher incentives have led to worse overall performance.

The right way to motivate

So, how do we motivate today’s employees? Experience shows us that we need to base our method on intrinsic motivators rather than extrinsic ones. For instance, instead of an employee being told that he will receive a bonus if he performs a task in a certain period of time, the results will be far better if money is taken out of the question, namely he is paid well enough, and he is told to do the same task, in the same period of time, but wherever they want, with whoever they want and by using whatever methods they prefer. These are in themselves rewards, but of a different type, and they offer something that only intrinsic motivators allow: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Being in control

People want to have more control over what, how and when they do what they do, they wish to be as skilled as possible in their profession and they need to feel that what they are doing serves a higher purpose. We have here the famous example of Google, a company that allows its employees complete control over 20% of their time, without offering financial or professional stimulants, yet this is when their best and most productive ideas are born. Or the example of companies that have adopted ROWE, Results Only Work Environment, a human resources management strategy wherein employees are compensated based on their achievements rather than the hours worked; there are no meetings, no strict deadlines, and studies have shown that worker satisfaction goes up in such circumstances. These methods strengthen businesses and help solve problems creatively and efficiently.

Outside the box

In a nutshell, today’s economy and labor market need to change, in order to adapt to and maintain the interest of modern workers, who are no longer interested in the old types of motivators. Simple, mechanical tasks can be externalized or taken over by machines, therefore the human jobs of the future will rely mostly on outside-the-box thinking, which is stimulated by intrinsic motivators.

At TRISOFT, we believe in motivating people in the best way possible and we strive to offer them great incentives and appreciate and value their inner nature. This is how our team works better and smarter every day. So let’s start closing the gap between what science knows and what business does!