Science-Backed Tactics For Motivating Other People

The secret to motivating people at work isn’t more money. Here’s what really works.

Science-Backed Tactics For Motivating Other People
[Photo: Flickr user stavros karabinas]

What inspires people to push forward? What tracks them down and keeps them accountable despite boredom and roadblocks along the way? It isn’t knowledge or responsibility or even money that motivates people to give their best.


The core predictor of career success is the inspiration people feel toward their work.

“Organizations that get this right will constantly beat their competitors,” says Chris Roebuck, a visiting leadership professor at the Cass Business School in London. And managers who get this right will get high performance from their workers.

It sounds simple, but uncovering the secret to effective motivation is no easy feat.

Forget rewards

Performance-pay has long been accepted as a compelling incentive that drives people to produce more, faster. While this may make sense for repetitive work, bonuses don’t quite resonate when any kind of rudimentary cognitive skill is needed to complete the task.

Daniel Pink, author of the book Drive, talks about this fallacy in his wildly popular 2009 TEDTalk where he explains that bonus, commission, and other standard monetary incentives actually restrict creative thinking and halts performance.


“This is one of the most robust findings in social science and also the most ignored,” he says. “This is not a feeling … this is not philosophy … this is a fact … a true fact.”

In his talk, Pink references the “candle problem,” a cognitive performance test published in 1945 where subjects are given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a box of matches, and asked to fix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below. The test evaluates problem-solving capabilities.

A few decades later, Princeton University’s Sam Glucksberg examined the power of incentives when he asked different groups to solve the candle problem. To the first group, Glucksberg explained that his study’s purpose was to obtain the estimated time people needed to find an adequate solution for the problem. To the second group, he offered cash incentives depending on how quickly one could come up with solutions. It took the latter group 3.5 minutes longer to solve the candle problem.


Glucksberg’s research found that incentives lead to worse performance because “the reward actually narrows your focus and restricts the possibility,” says Pink.

Obviously money is still an important factor. People work because they need to make a living. However, if people are paid enough to take money issues off the table, they’ll be able to focus on the work and find the best solutions, which results in higher performance.

Understand self-fulfillment needs

When it comes to an employee’s decision to give high performance, 57% is rational and 43% is emotional, says Roebuck, author of the book Lead to Succeed. About 80% of that emotional factor can be controlled by the employee’s direct manager.

The key to getting your employees to give high performance is to understand what motivates them, he tells Fast Company. People’s motivation can be anything from “I want to be the chief executive” to “I want to climb Mount Everest” and the secret is building trust and asking questions to uncover the truth. This may seem easy enough, but the problem is, “leaders don’t ask those questions,” he says. Furthermore, if someone tells you their needs, you should always be thinking about how you can help them achieve their goals. If they aren’t able to do it themselves, how can you–or the organization–help them get there?

According to Roebuck, most people have similar core principles that they conform to, which includes having specific needs met. First, people need their basic needs met, which includes food, water, safety, and shelter. Next, people want to be included in a community and to be able to add value to that community. Most professionals prefer to satisfy this need at work. However, if their work is made up of mechanical or repetitive tasks, they will look elsewhere to satisfy this need.


“It isn’t just about motivation and it’s not just about performance,” he says. “If you get to these levels with people and they are inspired by you, they will look out for your interests. If an organization inspires them, they will look out for the customers.”

Allow mastery to be witnessed

When you can see progress in your work, it further motivates you.

Harvard’s Teresa Amabile found in her research that progress is the single most powerful motivator in meaningful work. Managers should facilitate this progress if they want to positively influence their employees’ work life.

Put quite simply, people want to see how far they’ve come. When signs of that progress is missing, motivation quickly dwindles.

In a study conducted at Harvard University, social scientist Dan Ariely paid participants to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. Subjects were paid the same rate, which decreased after the first character. Both groups knew that their work would be disassembled at the end of the experiment, but one group actually saw their work destroyed as soon as they’d been built while the other group did not. The group that saw their work taken apart built less Bionicles before quitting.


The conclusion: Witnessing the fruits of your labor destroyed so quickly won’t motivate you to continue working. The study’s subjects were never able to see their characters accumulate and therefore, they were never able to see their progress.

Although this work doesn’t have much meaning, people want to feel like the work they’re doing is meaningful. Otherwise, it will seem pointless.

The real secret to getting people on your side and continue pushing for you is understanding them on a higher level. What drives their motives? What inspires them to push past understanding? Extrinsic value may be effective for a short period of time, but it all comes down to intrinsic, human connection for long-term progress and performance.


In short, forget rewards and start asking questions.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.