How to Motivate People: Skip the Bonus and Give Them a Real Project

Social experiments have upended almost everything that modern management takes as a given.

purpose cartoon

Science has managed to reveal some crazy things that fly in the face of almost every commonly accepted management practice. Here's the latest: Rewards for top performers lead them to worse performance. And if you want to foster innovation, bonuses won't work either. Rather, it's all about letting people slip from under line management and strike out on their own, on projects they care about.

Dan Pink lays all that out in this new video, which illustrates a talk he gave at the RSA (a kind of British version of TED):

Wild stuff, and all the more unsettling because of the current mess on Wall Street. It seems like common sense that you should reward the highest bonuses to the top earners. But instead, it seems like the only thing we fostered was a system where money mattered more than results. Which sounds obvious in retrospect, but it's remarkable that science has shown this to be almost universally true.

The fact that science has also created a new vision for workplace performance—fueled less by management and more by individual goals—is shocking.

Pink tackles those themes at length in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

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  • Paula Rauenbuehler

    RE: question on how to apply to sales roles. The answer is simple. When people perform at levels of excellence, the rewards are provided. Remember, a reward is what you receive when you perform (good, bad or mediocre--each have their own reward). When a company has employees who perform at world class levels, they are more successful than their lower performing competitors. Through this success comes reputation, financial gains, status. Each of these can be considered a reward.

    For a sales person, putting them in a situation that allows them to participate in the motivating factors that Pink and Herzberg speak of, will generally lead to success. Each will have their own level of excellence based on their experience level. But, with each situation, their confidence and EFFECTIVENESS grows, leading to futher success.

    To reward mediocre or 'meets expectations' performance with large rewards weakens the reward system. It sends a message to the receipient that just meeting expectations is good enough. That is counterproductive for any company. Meeting expectations is the bare minimum. When employees exceed expectations--their own or the companies--recognition for these efforts should be applied in a timely and effective manner. That entails knowing how the employee prefers to be recognized (publicly? privately? etc.)

    When you determine the internal motivators for an employee and you design the recognition program around those two factors, you maximize the opporutnities for success. Reward people in the wrong way, and you demotivate them. For example, for someone who loathes public recognition--to pull them up on a stage announcing their achievement will have the opposite results going forward. They will do whatever it takes to NOT be on the stage...which means lower level of performance.

    Sales people stereotypically have been identified as being only motivated by money. That stereotype can be counterproductive and companies applying it could be short changing themselves by not tapping in to the internal motivating factors for each.

  • derekirvinegloboforce

    Dan's ideas, research and presentation are excellent, here and in his book. I had the pleasure of conducting a webinar with Dan, and his excitement and intelligence on this topic is truly motivating in itself.

    It's important to note (as Dan did in the webinar) that not all employee recognition is bad -- in fact, it is necessary. It's the medium that needs to be reconsidered. Here's a quote from Dan in the webinar on this:

    "FACT: Recognition matters. A lot. Because recognition acknowledges the progress people need, frequently catch people in the act of making progress, call it out so people notice it, share it more widely and formally, and celebrate it. This is so powerful because Mastery depends on feedback. This kind of Now/That recognition is a powerful form of feedback. If it’s non-contingent (not held out as a carrot), it’s very motivating to Mastery. A culture that recognizes and celebrates progress is enormously motivating, creating engaging and productive places to work. And this is where the work that Globoforce is doing really comes into sync with the science."

    If you're interested in a full summary of the webinar or in viewing the webinar itself, please visit:

  • Luke Iorio

    Interesting post, and certainly interesting questions/insights that Dan Pink has been posing. I think it raises two issues/questions that require a more in depth look:

    #1 - How values have shifted? We're watching the continual debate around Corporate Social Responsibility, and at least the latest research is indicating that performance (in terms of financials, productivity, and engagement) is up at the companies that have placed value on more than just the bottom line. They have a bigger purpose, and this represents a shift in values that has occurred in the past decade -- let alone the past 2 years where the economy had people asking tough questions they'd long stopped asking. Social responsibility, relationships, sense of purpose, sense of freedom/choice, and many other values have skyrocketed up the list in terms of importance.

    #2 - What creates engagement? I agree that "purpose" is a key driver, but it's much deeper than employees focusing on just a "project of their choice" to use the example at hand. The project is still an external driver or representation of what's really the underlying motivation. It also focuses solely on capturing that engagement through action. Engagement (which encompasses harnessing an individual's focused energy, attention, motivation, passion, mind set, brain power, etc.) comes from the way that our beliefs, values, and experiences shape the way that we see the world around us. These perceptions are either going to be catabolic (meaning limiting) or anabolic (meaning expanding). The former has been linked to lower levels of performance, engagement, and overall satisfaction; while the latter has been shown to be a driver of improved and optimal levels of these categories. Helping individuals understand which type of perceptions they have, and how they can shift those perceptions, can mean that they will have the choice to engage in many more ways. Have you ever seen someone work with complete concentration and enjoyment at what most would consider a mundane task? Imagine being able to harness that concentration and enjoyment (that enthusiasm even) in anything that you do. That only comes from development of your internal world. (Catabolic and Anabolic references come from Bruce D Schneider's book, Energy Leadership, Wiley, 2007).

  • Roman Levandovsky

    Good question about how to apply this knowledge to sales. There are no projects per se for a sales reality. So does the theory default to sales being a rudimentary task?


    Show them how they are satisfying customers' needs and methods to seek out the customers' other needs that your product/services may satisfy... I have worked in sales and management for almost ten years... worth a try.

  • axeon73

    I agree. Money is great and all. But, please give a project that I can manage on my own, figure things out, and I'll get you the results that you want in the end.