When it comes to motivating others, carrots and sticks are passé. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Alfie Kohn draws on the synthesis of decades of research on human motivation to explain why relying on rewards backfires.
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation
There are two basic types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when someone is internally motivated to complete a task for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation relies on outside rewards (or “sugarcoated control”, as Alfie Kohn calls it) to influence the behavior of others. Intrinsic motivation is a better predictor of achievement and engagement, and can actually be damaged by rewards.
One possible reason is that the ability to reward someone implies an unequal balance of power, and can begin to feel like bribes. Another possibility is the concept of the hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation is the tendency of the human brain to quickly return to a happiness homeostasis. Receiving the reward becomes the new normal, and is no longer enticing.
Why do we still rely on rewards?
This may not seem like news in the world of nonprofits; salaries are often lower than in the private industry, so it stands to reason that intrinsic motivation is doing the heavy lifting in the employee/employer relationship. However, many managers still rely on extrinsic rewards to motivate employees. Though the logic is outdated, it’s been so ingrained in work culture that it’s difficult to overcome.
According to Ivey Business Journal, there is a tendency to assume that other people are motivated by extrinsic rewards, even when we recognize the importance of intrinsic motivation for ourselves. Knowledge is power, and being mindful of this bias can help defuse it and bring the focus back to emphasizing intrinsic motivation.
Increasing Intrinsic Motivation in the workplace
Because intrinsic motivation relies on internal states rather than external rewards, it can be more difficult to cultivate. However, the quality of work and engagement that it fosters makes the effort worthwhile. There are several steps that managers can take to nurture intrinsic motivation:
- Emphasize meaning
People are most motivated by what they find meaningful. Many people choose to work for nonprofits because of the opportunity to do work that makes a contribution to their community. The psychological rewards of giving back to others are strong, and managers can use that to build engagement. Connect a clear mission and purpose to the work at every turn, and help employees set defined goals that relate to the value of their work. If their work directly impacts others, arrange for them to meet those people or hear their stories.
- Encourage autonomy and creativity
When we create our own goals and have the latitude to determine the best course of action towards those goals, it makes us much more invested in them. Whenever possible, allow employees to define their challenges, design goals, and conquer them in the way they see fit.
- Provide feedback
Help employees monitor progress towards their goals. Give praise when goals are accomplished, and give honest constructive feedback in areas that require more growth. Recognize employees who have done an outstanding job of contributing to the organization.
- Find the gaps
Use tools like the Work Engagement Profile to find baseline levels of engagement, and craft an employee engagement plan according to the results. Use the tools to check in regularly and see what’s working and which areas need improvement.
Enacting effective motivation strategies is an investment in your staff, and essentially an investment in your overall organization. Like a butterfly effect for business, management (whether good or bad) effects every other aspect of the organization. Management that has a strong grasp of how intrinsic motivation works and how to implement it will have more success attracting and retaining the best talent, which inspires more public confidence and in turn leads to more donations and funding.