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Why Motivating People Doesn't Work … and What Does

By Susan Fowler

(Berrett-Koehler, 218 pages, $29.95)

Are you a pecking pigeon?

Of course not. Nor are your colleagues.

Yet the motivational theories that dominate our workplace trace back to noted psychologist B.F. Skinner and his studies on how to reward pigeons for good behaviour with pellets of food. We believe, instinctively if not also deeply, that we can get people to do things by offering them monetary or psychological rewards.

Yet, according to motivation expert Susan Fowler, in thousands of experiments, the only correlation between incentives and performance is negative. External rewards undermine the energy, vitality and sense of positive well-being people need to achieve goals, reach excellence, and sustain their efforts.

Yes, she admits, offering attractive "pellets" of some kind on an assembly line can increase output in the short term. But that doesn't mean the workers are thriving and flourishing, and so over the long-term, we will lose opportunities. "The Pecking Pigeon Paradigm never worked the way we thought it would – no matter the type of job or industry. The simple fact is, people are not pigeons," she writes in Why Motivating People Doesn't Work … and What Does.

Applying pressure to achieve results actually undermines the results we are seeking. Having a contest or creating competition among colleagues is not the best way to encourage and sustain performance. Our focus on monetary rewards has diverted us from understanding what actually satisfies people in their jobs.

"When it comes to motivation, we have underestimated ourselves – and perhaps even cheated ourselves – of something richer and much more meaningful than pellets, carrots, and sticks," she declares.

We can't motivate people. They must motivate themselves, she writes. And it's time we learned what motivates them, so maybe we can help – and certainly get out of their way.

Research shows three psychological needs are essential to thriving and flourishing:

1. Autonomy

People need to feel that what they are doing is of their own volition – that they are the source of their actions. You can see that when you try to spoon-feed a baby, who tries to grab control of the spoon for herself. As they age, individuals never lose that psychological need for perceived control. "Autonomy doesn't mean that managers are permissive or hands-off but rather than employees feel they have influence in the workplace. Empowerment may often be considered a cliché, but if people don't have a sense of empowerment, their sense of autonomy suffers and so do their productivity and performance," she writes.

2. Relatedness

This is the need to care about and feel cared about by others. It involves feeling connected to others without ulterior motives and the need to believe we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. This psychological need embodies the personal, interpersonal, and social. Given how much time people spend at work, you need to help them find purpose, contribute to a social purpose, and experience healthy interpersonal relationships.

3. Competence

People need to feel effective at meeting their everyday challenges and opportunities. They want to demonstrate their skills, and continue to grow. "Motivating people doesn't work because you can't impose growth and learning on a person. But you can promote a learning environment that doesn't undermine your people's sense of competence," she writes.

As well as understanding the power of those three psychological needs, she shares six different motivational factors you need to understand. Three are suboptimal: People won't be properly motivated when they are disinterested, lured by external factors such as rewards, or pressured by others, such as the fact colleagues are attending an event. She calls those motivational junk food, unhealthy and unproductive.

She counters with three factors she considers motivational health foods. The first is what she calls an aligned motivational outlook: The individual is able, for example, to link a meeting they are asked to attend to a significant value, such as learning. An integrated motivational outlook allows the individual to link the meeting to a life or work purpose, such as discussing an important issue at the meeting. Finally, there is an inherent motivational outlook – the individual simply likes meetings and figures the event will be fun.

The motivational health foods re-emphasize that you don't need to motivate people since they already are motivated. What you may need to do, in conversations, is help them to understand why something you would like fits their motivational outlooks or motivational needs.

The three motivational needs are not new, and were covered somewhat differently in Daniel Pink's 2014 book Drive: autonomy; a feeling of mastery in work; and meaning. Although her six motivational outlooks expand our thinking beyond the traditional notion of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, the stilted terms she uses can be confusing. Still, motivation is crucial, and if what you are inclined to do doesn't work, you need reminders of a better pathway.


Fire in the Belly (Nimbus Publishing, 200 pages, $29.95) by former Globe and Mail writer Gordon Pitts is a biography of the late and legendary Canadian executive Purdy Crawford that includes how he helped to rescue Canada from its 2007 asset-backed commercial paper debacle.

Mike Smith, vice-president of digital media at Hearst Magazines, looks at how technology is revolutionizing advertising in Targeted (Amacom, 208 pages, $30.95).

Consultants Betsy Polk and Maggie Ellis Chotas demolish some myths that keep women from collaborating and look at how they can lead better in Power Through Partnerships (Berrett-Koehler, 154 pages, $21.50).

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail

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