Are incentives the great motivator we think they are?

Are incentives the motivator we think they are

I spent the Easter weekend down at the Jersey shore in Manasquan with my in-laws. We drive up from DC on Friday then we drive back down Sunday evening. Usually after about the first half hour on the way home I’m the only awake in the car and I’ll throw on a book on tape/mps3. Anyways I decided on the way back last night that I would pick up Daniel H. Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”  I mentioned in my blog post about “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others,” that it changed the way I thought about a lot of things and “Drive” is the same way.  It’s a really incredible book and it just makes you rethink a lot of things.

In my case, almost everything he said seemed to be obvious but I just never thought of it that way because my whole life I’ve been trained to think and frame things in what he calls Motivation 2.0. This is essentially carrots and sticks. You go to business school and they talk about management and control functions, incentivization techniques, and aligning goals, objectives, and performance structures so you can get people to achieve the types of things that you want them to. He sort of takes that and turns it on its head.

He goes back and talks about some studies that were done in the 40s, 50s, and 60s and have been worked on continuously then where science is used to back up that people are more complex than just being motivated by incentives. Essentially, for a long time up until very recent history we’ve sort of thought about people like you would your dog.  For example, if you want your dog to roll over and do tricks you teach them that they get a treat afterwards and if they do something bad they get punished so they stop doing that. Not surprisingly it turns out, people are a little more complicated than that.

So one of the great studies he talks about is one that was conducted by a gentlemen that was doing some studies with monkeys. He had a simple locking mechanism and he put it in their cages to get them acclimated and before he got to the test he was going to be run (he was going to incentivize them to open the locks) something surprising happened. It turns out that once he put the mechanisms in their cages, they started solving them without any incentive. It started to make him think and over the next 30-40 years up until today the same gentleman has been working to follow up on that with studies with people.

It turns out that sometimes incentivizing people to do things, providing cash rewards for things actually lowers their propensity to do those things.  People, by virtue of linking monetary value to a task, turns it into work instead of fun or something that has its own intrinsic value. He talks about people being extrinsically motivated i.e. cash rewards and that’s a very hard model to sustain. He likens it almost to cigarettes or drugs, where people do it and it then triggers receptors in their brains. Eventually it takes more and more to trigger those receptors and to get that same feeling.

With the intrinsic motivation, people want to solve the problem because they want to solve a problem and that that doesn’t go away and it doesn’t change. So he talks about being very careful about how you incentivize people because once you head down the extrinsic path, you’re going to have to reward more and more frequently and with things of greater and greater value in order to sustain the type of effort that you want. The effort that you probably could have had, if it’s a particular type of task, simply by providing a good work environment.

He talks about how important autonomy is in many of today’s tasks. That by providing people with an environment where they’re able to think about their own approach and they’re given latitude in how to solve problems, they’ll often perform at a much higher level than if you incentive them.  One of the things that incentivizing people does is it pulls other options off the table. So instead of them thinking big picture and solving it in a unique way, they begin to narrow down their focus to simply achieve that goal.  He shows this by pointing out the short view of executives and publicly traded companies. You know so much time and effort is spent to meet quarterly numbers and you see people very rarely surpass those numbers. This is because they are incentivized and their performance bonuses are to meet the numbers. It’s just a really really interesting book, at least to the point that I’m at and when I finish I’ll follow up with another post.  I’m curious to know what other people think about this research on incentives.  We have a performance and incentive program at our organization and it makes me want to revisit that in light of some of the things that I’ve read about and try to make our work structure a little more progressive and align more to the science that’s out there on this topic.

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