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People Are Not Pigeons: 6 Ways to Create Highly Motivated Employees

In a Harvard university lab in the first half of last century, a lanky young doctoral student named B. F. Skinner watched a pigeon in his newly-created puzzle box turn in a circle to receive a food pellet. Eureka! He had proven that when a behavior is reinforced or rewarded, it will occur more often. Surely it makes sense then, that if we want our employees to be motivated and succeed, we should just reward them, right?

Oh, if it were just that simple.

While it’s true that humans are not immune to the effects of rewards or punishments, it turns out that we are complex creatures and think in complex patterns. In other words, how we think about rewards changes the outcome.

Meaning matters to us. A lot.

So while creating a reward system for dogs or pigeons requires nothing more than a large supply of food pellets, motivating people requires a deeper understanding of what drives us.

One important distinction we need to make here is between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. We are extrinsically motivated when we do work because of rewards given to us by someone else. We are intrinsically motivated when we do work because we find it naturally rewarding or find purpose in it.

If we are very intrinsically motivated, we are said to be in a state of flow (1). When we are in flow, we are completely immersed in our work, to the exclusion of all else. Flow is the “gold standard” of motivation, so to speak.

As managers, teachers, or parents, we often naturally fall back on doling out extrinsic rewards. When we want a certain behavior, we reach toward the incentive plan, treat box, or sticker chart. Unfortunately, recent research in cognitive psychology suggests that not only is this type of motivation often not helpful, if used exclusively it may actually be counterproductive.

Well-known researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have long recommended using intrinsic motivation in education (2). Alfie Kohn also, in his book Punished By Rewards, claims that an extrinsic incentive may temporarily control behavior, but ultimately undermines future engagement (3). Chiming in from the business sector, Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, shows compelling evidence that the use of external rewards can diminish both achievement and creativity among employees (4).

So what is a manager to do? You want your team members to succeed, but if traditional incentive programs alone are ineffective—or worse, counterproductive—what does that leave in your motivational toolbox?

While creating a climate of intrinsic motivation can take more effort, it will be well worth it. Let’s look at six traits of highly intrinsically motivated employees:

1. They feel competent at their job. “I have what it takes to be awesome at this!”

Psychologists call this type of competence “self-efficacy,” which simply means our belief in our ability to do a task (5). All of us like to feel like we have mastery in a domain. The better we feel we are at something, the more we want to demonstrate this prowess. Studies show we are also more likely to work harder and persist longer at new tasks if we believe we are proficient in general (6).

Managers must tread lightly here. Early experiences of failure can lead to helplessness and a spiraling lack of motivation. It is up to managers to do what they can to set employees up for success. One way to do this is by investing in thorough training from the very beginning. Also, managers must evaluate all software programs and internal processes to ensure they support rather than hinder employees. In addition, a manager may give the employee a few beginning projects that allow them to “hit it out of the ballpark.” Once the employee feels a sense of mastery, the resulting confidence often creates its own momentum.

2. They are able to monitor their own goals. “I have all of the tools I need to meet my goals and be successful!”

Another helpful term from psychology is “self-regulation.” Self-regulated employees are active participants in their own work, are proactive, and use strategies to achieve their own goals (7). Studies show that these traits result in a person who is competent, persistent, motivated, and successful

While some employees are natural “go-getters” and have self-discipline to spare, others may need a little help. An effective manager will provide all of the training and tools necessary for that to happen. Goals should be clearly stated and the steps to achieving those goals made simple and achievable. Importantly, people should be able to track these goals in real time. In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert makes the point that people can only think concretely about and are more excited by events that happened recently rather than distantly (8). Feedback can’t wait for a quarterly performance review!

3. They attribute their successes to hard work, not luck or natural ability. “If I keep working at this, I’ll figure it out!”

Believe it or not, one of the strongest indicators of our success is how we attribute either success or failure—whether we think our actions will make a difference or we’re just “born with it.” The tide is turning against the idea of natural ability and towards the idea that practically any skill is learnable with enough practice. According to researcher Carol Dweck, those with a “fixed mindset” (that their ability is pre-determined) stay stuck in their belief patterns and often quit when they face a challenge. On the other hand, those with a “growth mindset” (that they can learn anything with enough practice) welcome challenges as chances to build their skills (9).

An effective manager should do what they can to foster a growth mindset in their team. This can be challenging, since many people show up with a fixed mindset developed over a lifetime of messages from parents, teachers, and our culture at large. There are employee training programs that help develop this skill. But the truth is, one of the most effective ways to develop a growth mindset in others is to develop it in yourself first. By modeling a love of challenges and a willingness to see mistakes as learning experiences, you can create a positive corporate culture.

4. They feel like they have been given ownership of their work. “Give me some control! Let me own this!”

Autonomy can be a powerful motivator, leading to better performance and creativity. In fact, according to Gilbert, humans have such a passion for exercising control that having it taken away can lead to depression, illness, and even early death! Conversely, feeling like we have control in our lives improves both our mental and physical health.

A great way to develop autonomy is to give employees as much choice as possible, whether it’s giving them their choice of project or letting them define their own work goals. Just being involved in the process of defining standards actually makes it more likely that those standards will be met. Any choice—no matter how small—helps contribute to a person’s overall feeling of autonomy and workplace satisfaction.

5. They find some element of fun and creativity in their work. “Whoa! What was that?”

Humans crave novelty and exploration. Using fun and creative elements at work help to grab attention and foster engagement. One way of achieving fun in the workplace is through incorporating game-like elements (called “gamification”). It is common knowledge that we will put forth more effort for a game than we will if we think of it as work. Have you ever wondered why the same teenager who can’t seem to spend 15 minutes on simple math homework will spend three hours calculating weapon damage and devising strategies for his video game character? It comes as no surprise that games are also known to trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is our primary reward drug (10).

A manager can harness this power by weaving game elements into work processes. For example, a game can be created to teach job skills or work policies. Or teams can be created for light-hearted, collaborative quests. Managers can also shop around for workplace software that already incorporates an engaging and game-like user interface.

6. They feel connected to each other and to a higher purpose. “I want to contribute to something larger than myself.”

From infancy, we are all wired to relate to others. Throughout our lives we have an intense need to be connected with other people in a meaningful way. In the same way, we also crave a meaningful connection to a purpose higher than ourselves. In short, we want to matter and we want to make a difference.

Effective managers will create opportunities for employees to connect with one another on an interpersonal level. They will also create a supportive and non-judgmental office climate. In terms of purpose, how a manager communicates the mission of the company also matters. For example, does the contact center have the mission of “servicing customers efficiently”? Or is their mission “to bring a moment of ease and happiness into a customer’s otherwise stressful day”?

Fostering a climate of intrinsic motivation in the workplace can be a challenge for managers, but can yield high dividends in competence, engagement, innovation, and satisfaction among employees. Trust me, it’s worth it.

1. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.
2. Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology, 49, 14-23.
3. Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
4. Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
5. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215.
6. Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Self-efficacy: An essential motive to learn. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 82–91.
7. Zimmerman, B. J. (1989). A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(3), 329–339.
8. Gilbert, D. T. (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books.
9. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
10. Howard-Jones, P., Demetriou, S., Bogacz, R., Yoo, J., & Leonards, U. (2011). Toward a science of learning games. Mind, Brain, and Education 5(1), 33-41.

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