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How to motivate someone. Hint: It’s not what you think.

I have been always curious what is the best incentive to give someone to motivate a certain behavior. In my own experience, I have been under a number of different compensation and bonus programs, most I haven’t thought worked all that well.

Is the best way to motivate a certain behavior simply to reward them for it?

Motivation Reward

Kind of. But it’s not that simple.

Author Daniel Pink puts this great overview together that I think helps explain how you get someone motivated is more difficult than you think.

The experiment: Give people different levels of cash rewards to perform various tasks.

The Experiment

People were asked to do a numbers of different tasks such as memorize numbers, solve crosswords, play basketball, etc. They were promised cash rewards.

The result: For any task that called for cognitive skill, higher pay resulted in poorer performance.

The result

OK, that’s weird? So as long as the task was only a mechanical skill, rewards worked well. But if the task involved some brain-based skill the reward worked in the opposite ways. It produced poorer performance.

So how do you motivate people to perform tasks that require more cognitive thinking?

The motivation

Daniel Pink says the answer is in few words: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Pay people enough that money is no longer an issue so they can actually focus on the work at hand. Once that is accomplished then this is where autonomy (desire to be in charge of own lives), mastery (desire to get better at what we do), and purpose (desire to make a difference) kicks in.

The purpose

Purpose is the biggie here. We all want to make a difference and make the world a better place, right?

So maybe our ways of making our business or organization better is outdated by the way we think about motivation.

Make it better

“If we start treating people like people, and not assuming that they’re simply horses … if we get past this kind of ideology of carrots and sticks and look at the science, I think we can actually … make our world just a little bit better.”