For many leaders, it’s daunting to think that external rewards are less effective or important to most workers than we may once have thought. It’s akin to the parent who suddenly discovers that promises of a new video game, or threats of taking away certain privileges, have limited effect on their child’s behavior. If you remove rewards and punishments when trying to motivate others, what’s left?
The answer to that question may at first deepen our anxiety as leaders. Research on motivation in the workplace has shifted from a focus on the carrot or stick methods of the early 20th Century, to a better understanding of the fact that most workers are motivated by deeper, more internal drives.
While there may still be some relevance in using rewards and punishment, we are far more aware today that, once an employee achieves a reward or avoids a punishment, the motivation diminishes almost immediately. The problem with external motivation factors are that they eventually come to an end, or become irrelevant, and therefore lose the impact they were designed to have.
In our recent report, Coaching Redefined: How Internal Motivation Can Fuel Performance, we revisit the Self Determination Theory of Professors Deci and Ryan, and the discovery that we all share three basic psychological needs:
- the need to feel valued as knowledgeable (competence)
- the need to collaborate (relatedness), and
- the need to exercise self-regulation (autonomy).
At a recent Argyle Executive Forum conference on learning and development, I discussed with session participants ways that leaders can support internal motivation.
The answer? By creating conditions that allow employees to satisfy their own needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy.
While leaders may feel that less emphasis on rewards or punishments puts employee motivation beyond their control, there are actually real and specific things that leaders can do to foster a motivated workforce through needs-based coaching, including:
- Shaping a motivational workplace
- Giving needs-based feedback
- Developing plans that focus on intrinsic needs, and
- Offering rewards and recognition
The difference between external motivation and internal motivation, according to the research, is the difference between short-term gains and sustained performance over time. So really, the shift in thinking from rewards and punishments to needs-based coaching, is like a shift from thinking of cost to thinking in terms of investment.
Sharon Daniels is CEO of AchieveGlobal in Tampa, Florida