Have you ever experienced a situation where your employer has done a bad job of motivating you? I can think of quite a few situations where an organisation’s attempt has failed, or even had the opposite effect. Despite this, the same motivation practices continue to be used, even though much more powerful solutions are available. Here’s a simple example of one.

I once worked in a job where part of the role was to respond to business enquiries and general questions from users that came in by email. This would take 30-60 minutes each day, and often nothing immediately useful would come of it. Most enquiries were politely declined, and many users were often directed elsewhere.

For over a year I shared this task with a colleague. I’d do it for one week, and then we’d switch for the next. It was pretty hard to find the motivation to keep doing it, but there was something that continually motivated us to get it done. So what kept us going?

Extrinsic motivators, also known as the “carrot” and the “stick”, are probably the most commonly used motivation techniques in the workplace. These are basically rewards and punishments, and generally manifest themselves in a financial sense, i.e. “you will get a 5% extra bonus if you do ABC”, or “you will get get fired if you are caught doing XYZ”.

There are several issues with extrinsic motivators (some of which you may well have experienced yourself). It’s incredibly difficult to incentivise all the desired actions with appropriate rewards/punishments, so they often do not lead to the desired outcomes. For smaller tasks (like the ones I’m talking about), punishments and rewards often just make you feel a bit like a school child, and that’s not really how you want to be treated at work (or even at school!). So what other motivating factors can be used?

Daniel H. Pink has some really interesting ideas about what motivates us in his bookDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink suggests that for work that requires at least a small amount of cognitive input, extrinsic rewards are often detrimental. Instead, he claims there are three elements of motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

  • Autonomy – People enjoy the opportunity to think for themselves and make their own decisions without being restricted by others/managers. If they have the ability to decide how to attack something rather than being told how to, then they will be more motivated to complete the task.
  • Mastery – People enjoy becoming experts at something, as well as the challenge of overcoming a difficult task. If a task challenges them or makes them learn something useful, then they will often be willing to give it a go.
  • Purpose – People want to know why they are doing something, they don’t like doing things that are pointless. If they know there is good reason, they are more likely to keep on going, however tough it is.

If you haven’t read (about) Pink’s book, then I highly recommend this animated video.

As I said earlier, there was something that motivated me to do those daily tasks every other week. Extrinsic motivators weren’t used, so maybe Daniel H. Pink’s three elements of motivation – autonomy, mastery and purpose – were what was motivating me?

Well, was it autonomy? At first this was definitely a motivator, as I had the ability to decide how to deal with all these people that had contacted the company. But after several months of responding to these emails, there were rarely any exciting decisions to be made. I had seen most of the requests before in some shape or form, and therefore I knew how to respond. The freedom of how to respond was not exciting any more.

What about mastery? Without wanting to sound too arrogant, after a few months I had pretty much “mastered” these tasks. After this point I was not learning any more, and I was not overcoming any satisfying challenges. It wasn’t mastery that was keeping me going for over a year.

So it must be Purpose? Well, given that hardly anything useful ever came of it, it was often hard to see the purpose. In fact, I often cared more about my own projects rather than things that affected the company as a whole. My main projects were why I was really at the company, that was my “Purpose”. So those projects would be where I’d want to spend my time. But still, there was something else that spurred me on to prioritise responding to these emails every other week.

So, what was it? What motivated me?? Well, the key is something I mentioned right at the beginning: the fact that I shared the task with my colleague. I got on well with my colleague, we worked well together. If I failed to do it one week, then it meant that he would have twice as much to do the next week. My conscience won’t allow me to let my colleagues down. If I’m lazy, someone I know has to pick up the slack, and that’s just not fair. What’s more, if for some reason I didn’t do it for a week, he would call me out on it immediately, and I would rectify the situation as quickly as possible. That’s what kept me going each week; the fact that we were in it together, and if I didn’t do my job then I was letting the side down.

Team motivation is incredibly powerful, and something that is not covered by Pink’s three motivators. If a team has a clear shared goal or responsibility, then they will call each other out when someone is slacking off. If colleagues know that they will be letting others down by not doing their job properly, then, assuming they care about each other, they will do their utmost to get the job done.

This mechanism is very effective for much larger purposes, not just small tasks. Rather than individually managing the performance of all members on a project, you could instead assess them as a whole. If the performance of one individual will affect the reputation of others in the team, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will all end up striving for the same outcome. All you need to do is recruit a team with a conscience, and give them an appropriate goal.

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