The Puzzle of Motivation

by on March 28, 2017

Dan Pink made one correct statement: There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Before anything further, I am sure if Dan Pink reviewed this video now, six years later, then he would be embarrassed (I hope) to have it on the Web, and on the TED.com website of all places.

Science takes the approach: let us throw the baby out with the bath water and then study this [now] empty basin and see if we can figure out how a baby can get clean in this simple vessel. Or, in terms of the video, let us remove the human element from the scenario and then re-create everything but the human element and try to explain what happened. Science likes to take what they know is true – a clean baby – and remove the truth and then ask what can we do to re-create a clean baby. I know, it sounds ridiculous because it is.

Business takes the approach: let us hold on to the baby (cuz life is precious!), the bath water, and the basin and see if we can make this process better. We don’t really care what is more important. We just want to have a cleaner baby so let us study the basin, the bath water, the soap and the baby and then figure out how we can provide a cleaner baby than anyone else.

Mr. Pink cites research done by four behavior economists who were funded by the Federal Reserve (hopefully that gives everyone pause) that found that humans performed worse at a given task when given a timed financial incentive. Discussing Mr. Pink or his science buddies (Dan Ariely, et al) will only legitimize a position that is false. So, rather than discussing the video (above) or the of the link I shared, please look at them yourself. Read their work, find other stuff, and see how much truth you find, because from this point we are going to dive deeper than many social scientists have done.

What really bothers me is a continual mis-understanding of what motivation actually is. Motivation is a move to action. Motivation inherently has to come from within the individual. Focussing on the dichotomy of extrinisic versus intrinsic motivation is simply ridiculous. A manager that consciously chooses to develop the intrinsic motivation of his team in actuality is merely playing with a different tool set; a tool set that still belongs in extrinsic motivation. Since all moves to action have to come from within the inidividual – not outside – the manager is still not able to change the decision of the team member. Giving employees more autonomy is an external action a manager will use hoping it fosters greater desire. Encouraging mastery, providing a unified or stronger purpose are all external actions that managers hope will foster greater desire.

Do all managers successfully figure out how to motivate their employees to exceptional levels? Levels that are one or more standard deviations better than the industry standard? Of course not. Some can, some can’t. Some managers have successfully used financial incentives (rewards) for huge productive gains for their companies. Some haven’t.

Okay, so the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy is not exactly what we thought it was. That is, regardless of the external stimuli on the individual the move to action still has to come from the individual. The proper dichotomy for motivation that we are really concerned about is whether the move to action is based in fear or desire.

(Aside: I have heard one individual state that the dichotomy is really fear or love. I can’t remember the exact rationalization for the difference. All I can remember is thinking it is a pessimistic worldview of the word desire to want to replace it with love.)

When we are moved to action we are either moved by fear or desire. Let us look at a simple action like waking up in the morning for work. Why do we hit the snooze button for an extra ten minutes? We desire the comfort, warmth and good feelings that the early morning provides. Why do we jump out of bed when the alarm goes off the second (or third) time? We fear the consequences of being late for work.

Understanding where the call to action comes from in each of our actions is important because actions rooted in fear are usually temporary, do not last, that is, the learning is not permanent. Think about the action to stop a bad habit and how hard it is. For most bad habits the urge to quit is an urge rooted in fear. A fear of getting sick, having an accident, losing a job. If we have the bad habit of always driving too fast in residential areas and our only motivation is the fear of getting another speeding ticket, then how easy will it be for me to learn to always drive slower in residential areas? Probably not very easy.

Calls to action rooted in desire have the opposite effect. When we choose to do something because we desire the results of the action, then the action or behavior tends to have a greater effect. That is, we tend to seek out or want to repeat that positive feeling. Think about all the things we do, any given day, to make us feel good. Holding the door a moment longer, smiling for someone, leaving a tip, giving a compliment. The motivating force is not necessarily to make the other person feel better, but that we desire to feel good. That by holding a door for someone with their arms full, or recognizing someone’s existence, will make someone feel good therefore making us feel good.

So how does business understand this phenomenon better than science? Business knows that the key to promoting desire (and thus increased productivity and profits) is by building relationships. Some managers effectively increase productivity through intrinsic motivation – but they do it through the relationships they have built. Some managers are just as effective increasing productivity through extrinsic motivators because they are just as effective at building relationships that foster desire.

It is the relationships that matter in business.

An awesome case study of the power of relationships in business is the athlete Lauren Fleshman. The list of accomplishments by Lauren could easily take as much space as this whole article, but I only want to look at the success of a smaller part of the Lauren Fleshman brand, specifically the Believe Training Journal. Her journal (that she co-created with Roissin McGettigan) is a work of art and is unique as far as training journals go – but when you really sit down and flip through it, it is just a training journal!! But people have purchased this training journal and started using it and are moved to leave (many) comments (of their own volition) like this:

Kuddos to @laurenfleshman for the #BelieveTrainingJournal. I didn’t know logging miles could be this fun #gamechanger pic.twitter.com/pKdiG0KY8J — Kara Lubieniecki (@KaraLeeLu) January 31, 2015

Success, change, profits are not due to great ideas, innovations, or rewards but the relationships involved in the process. Lauren does not have any world records, let alone American records. She has never been to the Olympics. She is still an incredibly gifted athlete, but her greatest gift is not her strength, speed and endurance. Her greatest gift, the gift that made Oiselle go all-in to get her on board, is her ability to move someone to action without having to do anything than be herself.

Bad managers, i.e. those who are not able to build good business relationships, that rely on extrinsic motivation (rewards, financial incentives) struggle because rewards without relationships are really a bribe. Good managers, i.e. those who are able to build strong business relationships, don’t necessarily need [extra] rewards for their team for high performance (though, most of us need an income of some sort).

The trick in business is finding that sweet spot between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Because when you find that sweet spot then the desire will be maximized. Employees need some sort of compensation (unless they are already set for life), but they also want to feel that others value their contributions. Owners are already spending too much on personnel costs so they need results (re: return on investment) without spending more of their profits. Business, well good business, has known this for more than a hundred years. Science has yet to catch up (well not all science).

Endnotes: (The credit for most of the inspiration belongs to all the videos and links above + the four sources below)

1. Waitley, Dr. Denis. Psychology of Winning. Nightengale-Conant, 1979.

2. Fay, Jim and Fay, Dr. Charles. 9 Essential Skills for the Love and Logic Classroom. Love and Logic Press, 2002.

3. Ariely, Dan, et al. Large Stakes and Big Mistakes. The Review of Economic Studies (2009) 76, 451-469.

4. Pink, Dan. The Puzzle of Motivation. TED Talks, 2009. http://www.ted.com. PS BTW this is not just for business. Harnessing fear and desire is important at home as well.