How to Motivate Employees (Hint: You’re Doing it Wrong!)

Motivation doesn’t only come from rewards. There are many different ways to motivate people so don’t use having limited budget dollars as an excuse for your team lacking motivation.


I absolutely love this article by Daniel Pinkabout what motivates people, illustrated by RSA Animate. Pink’s Version


What Pink shares is nothing less than ground-shaking for the business world. His message is a complete reversal of what most business leaders assume is true: that bigger rewards lead to higher performance. It is a carrot philosophy based on the hope that employees will respond to positively to increasing rewards. This belief is deeply ingrained in our organizational structures and management approaches, and we take it for granted.

Think about the last time your team was flailing – missing quarterly goals, not keeping up with a growing workload, catching flak for poor quality – whatever the problem. Which options did you consider? Did you institute a bonus program for employees who were willing to take up the slack? Did you ask underperforming employees what it would take to get them into gear (free lunch, gift cards, free iPods)? Even if you didn’t choose one of these options, I’ll bet you were tempted. After all, you’re under the gun; you need to produce results; and you have to find a way to motivate all these warm bodies – fast!

But Pink tells us this is exactly the wrong approach. We are wrong to expect that financial rewards will motivate our employees to give us better work. In fact, for tasks that require any amount of cognitive skill or creative thinking, performance is inversely related to the rewards offered.

Translation: If you’re trying to motivate employees, bribes are bound to backfire. BIG TIME!

Why Traditional Management Fails
If you’re relying on a succession of carrots to keep employees going, you’re going to end up with a bunch of unmotivated, demoralized, underperforming drones. Why? Because the carrot and stick philosophy robs them of the internal drive to perform. Pink sees this internal drive as the result of three factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. People want control of their own destiny. They want to be challenged and find fulfillment in getting better at something. And they want to feel they are making a difference.


In my world – in the Reality-Based Workplace – I call this personal accountability. Commitment. Resilience. Ownership. Continuous learning. These are the key ingredients for a happy, engaged, fulfilled and high-performing employee. And they do not come from a bonus or a bribe.

Reality-Based Leader’s Focus on Internal Motivation
If you are still trying to motivate employees the old way – through a system of rewards – you are probably frustrated and failing. It’s time to wake up. Drop the old notions that bigger financial incentives will lead to greater gains. Instead:

•Realize that employees are people with complex motivations and a deep-seated need for satisfaction and fulfillment.
•Call your team up to greatness with frank feedback, gentle guidance and challenging work. And don’t lower the bar. Build an environment where every employee is personally accountable for delivering results and playing a role in the organization’s success.
•Empower employees to solve their own problems and help them build “resistance muscle” to overcome the obstacles they face.
•Help fight learned helplessness by building confidence in your team. Sometimes the largest constraint is the one we’ve created in our minds. The results are bound to follow if you, as the leader, first believe.

Does your team suffer from learned helplessness? Watch the video of Cy discussing Learned Helplessness to find out.