We hear the term ‘motivation’ a lot, people even build entire careers around motivational speaking, however, I think it’s one of those things that needs revisiting in order to better understand how to utilise it.

Motivation is derived from the Latin word ‘Movere’ meaning ‘to move’. The root word is applied to familiar phrases to describe the nature of moving something, for example; motel, remote, emotion etc. According to the Oxford dictionary, it means to ‘Provide (someone) with a reason for doing something’. I wanted to dive deeper into this word and examine it.

What motivates us?

When I think about motivation, the image of a man riding a donkey while dangling a carrot on a rod comes to mind. This is a very familiar illustration, but I have several problems with it.  The donkey is chasing the carrot but it’s not smart enough to realise that it’s not going to be rewarded, at least not until a gruelling amount of work is done. This is torture.

  1. It’s just one carrot. Are you telling me that one little carrot is supposed to satisfy the donkey after a long journey?!
  2. What if the donkey isn’t hungry? Better yet, the donkey must be thirsty as well as hungry, so why not give it water to drink?

In life, many of us are like the donkey, and the carrot represents the shallow rewards that are offered as a way to keep us motivated; money, paid holidays, and the promise of a promotion. These aren’t bad things, but if we’re relying on that alone as the main source of motivation then we’re missing the mark. If the donkey chases the carrot and then dies of thirst then what’s the point? In the same way, we find ourselves chasing the carrot in our lives without acknowledging what really matters to us in the end.

Credit: www.banqer.co/blog/extrinsic-vs-intrinsic

The reward experiment

This video below shows how humans can be motivated in order to do something that requires more effort than the alternative. In order to get more people to take the stairs, the steps in an underground station were transformed into working piano keys. This added a fun element to people’s daily commute, and they found that people used the stairs 60 percent more.

This example made me realise a couple of things. The commuters weren’t really gaining anything tangible from taking the stairs, but they still preferred the reward of hearing the sounds than taking the escalators. There was also a visual stimulus attracting them. The outcome was a feeling of joy, so perhaps in order to motivate people an emotional connection is required, more so than something you can physically consume.

Motivation in the workplace

In the working environment, the general motive of working is the paycheck at the end of the month. You work, I pay you, the exchange is simple. There’s also the paid leave and other perks added into this. It’s not a bad deal really, but why do so many companies struggle to retain members of staff for long periods of time?

When you think about it, most people work far beyond their contract hours, without knowing for sure that they’ll be promoted or get a raise. Again, this is like chasing the carrot. Eventually, people tend to get fed up, struggling to keep up the same standard and enthusiasm. This is especially true when someone works hard and nothing comes out of it. Are we missing the emotional connection here?

This is why many workplaces are now introducing things that break up the cycle of the daily activities. Things like investing in ping-pong tables and Friday drinks are all well and good, but it’s also effective to take the employees away from the working environment. Some time ago I found out that the recruitment company, Reed, had 1 day a week where staff could do anything they wanted that wasn’t work related. This seems to me like a step in the right direction and it will be a pity if they didn’t continue it.

The problem with money and the candle problem

If I said money wasn’t a motivator I would be lying. Money can be effective, but only for so long. I have a few problems with relying on money to motivate someone:

  • Money on its own is just a figure, and with no plan to exchange it for something it very quickly becomes meaningless. It’s more about what the money will enable you to do, for example; buy a new car, save up for a holiday, pay off a debt etc.
  • The exchange has to be worthwhile. If the energy and time spent outweighs the work then the appeal is lost (see my post on Time as Currency).
  • Not everybody can be bought. Some companies feel that in order to stop an employee from resigning, throwing more money at them will keep them around. Sure, this works sometimes, but it doesn’t always deal with the core issue and the individual will probably still resign after a while, even with extra perks like working from home.

The following TEDtalk presentation by Dan Pink goes into detail about using money as a motivator and it’s negative effects. In summary, it has been repeatedly proven that the more money you use as a motivator, the worse the results are. In the tests that were run, they realised that those who were offered less money completed the experiment 3 times faster than those who were offered more!

In cases like the candle problem below, we find that people are more effective when the environment is changed. This allowed them to think differently and solve the problem much faster than the other group that had money as an incentive. Despite knowing all this, we continue to use money to solve everything.

What can be done?

Taking everything we’ve learned into account, what are the key things that can be applied in order to motivate people?

  1. Create an emotional connection. The results should be a feeling, such as; joy, excitement, anticipation etc.
  2. Break up the mundane routine. Things get old really fast so introduce something new every now and then. Something as simple as closing the office early for the weekend can go a long way, and maybe even improve productivity.
  3. The reward must outweigh the amount of effort put in, not the other way round.
  4. Money isn’t a sustainable motivator so don’t rely on it. Each person is different so make the effort to find out what’s important to them.

What motivates you in life? Is there a time that you were motivated or had to motivate someone else? Let me know in the comments.