Because I Say So

One of the biggest heartbreaks I deal with as a child welfare attorney is seeing people on the cusp of adulthood–sixteen and up–making choices that point their lives in violent, lonely, dangerous directions. I would give a lot to motivate these young people to stay in school, stay off the streets after dark, stay away from the booze, the drugs, the traffickers, and the gangs.

The families and foster care workers who work with this population try many strategies to incentivize compliance with commonsense rules (like “don’t pick fights,” or “come home after school.”) They offer rewards of money, goodies, outings, shoes, clothing, vacations…. the issue comes down to life or death, from my perspective, and if offering an adolescent an all expenses paid trip to Cancun would save a life, I’d do it and consider it a bargain.

Compared to housing that young person in jail for years, or in rehab, or a safe house, it would be a bargain. The problem is that, contrary to most manager’s dearly held myths, carrots and sticks don’t work. For tasks of any cognitive complexity, for tasks that require any creativity, having a possible reward based on a superior outcome usually decreases performance.

You read that correctly: Promising casual Fridays, a bonus, a higher commission percentage in exchange for higher performance generally backfires. If the task is very simple–VERY simple, like stacking boxes–then the incentive might have a positive effect. For anything else, people tend to do better when they are motivated by autonomy (being in charge of their own time and effort), mastery (the desire to improve skills and competence because that feels good), and purpose–the sense that the work is meaningful.

I think this reality–which most of us know intuitively–figures into the average work of genre fiction. One of the hallmarks of a good mystery is not that the detective solves a lot of cases in a short period of time, but rather, that he or she colors outside the lines, is motivated by the victims’ need for justice, and is from page to page, pretty much in charge of his or her time and resources.

Same with thrillers, same with romance, in that the protagonists are in pursuit of goals that matter to them personally, not goals that matter to the quarterly earnings report. The protagonists are self-motivated, they are gnawing away at complicated issues, and they are tackling the book-challenges because those are high stakes problems.

Fiction built around winning the top sales award for the year would fall flat, unless the person winning that bonus was also being creative about how they pursued the goal, and had more riding on that windfall than just a larger 401k balance.

Daniel Pink’s short TED talk provides more information about the science verifying how counterproductive extrinsic rewards can be (and the research goes back decades).

What motivates you? This week’s giveaway might be chosen from among whatever is mentioned in the comments. For me, autonomy is a huge motivator, but even Amazon doesn’t seem to have a Free Time gift card yet.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

13 comments on “Because I Say So

  1. Acknowledgement for a job well done motivates me. At times, the learning curve in my new position seemed overwhelming — now I receive less constructive feedback and more job well done news.

    Our company was bought out last year & again this year. Holiday, vacation and health benefits were cut. Layoffs are looming…. job security would motivate me, too.

    On the homefront- a smile from my daughter, surprise flowers from my husband and a corgi snuggle from Molly motivate me to try a new recipe, clean the house or spend some quiet time & relax with my dog

  2. As a performer, applause (literally and figuratively)motivates me TO A CERTAIN POINT. It’s nice to know others think I’ve done a good job and applause is a very tangible way to know that. But sometimes, there isn’t a lot of applause for something modern or difficult or strange but I feel good anyway since I know I’ve done well.

    In other aspects of my life, it’s good to know what you do is appreciated. I hate cleaning and doing laundry so hearing someone TELL me they appreciate what I’ve done helps me to do it.

    I think this is true for many of us; what we do for the sheer love of it or we know we are very competent doing something, we don’t need a lot to motivate us. When we HAVE to do something we don’t like to do or we don’t want to do, it helps to have some sort of motivating factor.

    Money motivated me–as it has to for many people–early in my career and marriage. I did things I didn’t want to do because we needed the money. And sometimes, it was tough to get out of bed and know I had to put myself back in something unpleasant and even harassing. I did because we had to pay the bills. I vowed to never put myself in that position again when we could afford it and I haven’t; THAT was motivating too!

  3. Being able to participate, to help people I care about motivates me. Being able to manage my daily life so I have less pain, more energy, am able to participate is one of the gifts of being on disability. I’m not failing at work being sick or absent. When I cancel now my circle knows I’m not being a flake or rude, it’s I genuinely can’t keep our plans. And they tend to come up with creative solutions to get together. They’re willingness and understanding are tremendous gifts.

  4. I like the satisfaction of knowing something is completed, and then I can relax and enjoy my free time. I dearly love to have a list and see all the open boxes colored in because I have completed all the tasks. The problem is that I have too many things on my To Do list, and not enough free time. I think part of what motivates me is getting to that free time with a clear conscience and knowing I can devote myself to reading without worrying about what else I have to accomplish!

  5. The biggest motivator for me is myself. I like to accomplish things and the more complicated or complex the better. I also like things that let me think outside the box (or be creative so to speak) and look at ways to improve the status quo. I also have a fantastic boss so I hate feeling like I’ve let her down, so that provides a little extra motivation.

  6. Having my input, especially creative, heard and acted on is very motivating for me at work. Even when it is more work for me, seeing my ideas enacted and successful is so rewarding I gladly do the extra work. At home, reciprocity is very motivating. It sounds selfish perhaps, but when my husband does something because he knows I hate to do it and just does it without expecting anything, or even me to notice, I am motivated to and enjoy making his life a little simpler too. On my own, I don’t necessarily get struck with domestic altruism often, but I can respond to it at least.

  7. My biggest motivators are happiness and peace—for me and the people around me. I do many things on a daily basis that I do not want to do simply because I know it makes my kids happy and will keep the peace in my home.

    I’m also motivated by seeing progress, even if it’s very small. As a nurse, I rarely ever received a pat on the back or even a hearty hand shake, but seeing a patient’s health improve because of the care he/she received was very rewarding for me.

  8. I am also largely a self-motivator. I guess maybe my self esteem requires that I do a good job at everything I tackle. I will say, however, that my salary was a factor in how good a job I did since I saw people making less effort but getting rewarded more, so I sometimes dialed back to “good enough.” But I don’t think I’m boasting when I say that my “good enough” was usually better than many others but my social skills (especially of the boot-licking variety) were not generally high enough to get the extra salary. Now that I’m retired and answerable mostly to me, I am motivated by trying to surround myself with pleasantness, rather than mess (of physical and social environments).

  9. I don’t seem to need much of a carrot to read a book or eat chocolate… a few other things as well.

    I will go beyond my comfort zone, however, to be useful to those who matter to me, whithin my areas of ability. At one time, I baked a lot of cookies.

  10. This is a question that I’ve been trying to answer lately. Not necessarily for myself–my motivation is purpose–but for my daughter. You see, we homeschool. And dd is 9, or rather, the age where I start asking where my sweet little girl went. And she’s starting to question why she has to do her schoolwork. And I have to find ways to motivate her. I don’t have the answer. I wish that I did. I do know that it has to do with the heart. She has to care. This has to be a wooing situation, not a barking orders situation.

    Say a prayer, or wish me luck! 😉

  11. Different things have motivated me at different times in my life. Some times fear, sometimes anger, sometimes just the need to pay the rent. And then there is the old “I’ll show them.” But the best motivator is the desire to just be my best self and live my best life. It still gives me satisfaction to learn something new or learn a new skill.

  12. I love learning, I love my friends. I am finishing up a class on Russian History 1861 to Present Day. It was simply fascinating. I have signed up for a course in Central Asia for the Fall. I have ordered two books to read over the summer. My friends are women I enjoy spending time with and travelling with. Yesterday was a hard day. I spent time with my family.

  13. Having taught teenagers for 28 years, I agree that one must be intrinsically motivated to succeed in most endeavors. As a teacher I am most challenged to inspire students to see value in the learning (something that many others take for granted yet seems is a dwindling commodity).