The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging

Excerpt from “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does” by Susan Fowler.

For almost 20 years, I have pursued the study and application of motivation science around the world. The ideas in my book, “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does,” have been field tested with cutting-edge leaders and thousands of people from business, government, and nonprofit organizations. Many of the significant examples related in this book come from my teaching an innovative Optimal Motivation experience, developed with coauthors David Facer and Drea Zigarmi and the Ken Blanchard Companies.

Based on a combination of contemporary motivation science and real-world application, the time is right to challenge antiquated ways of leading. There is a different and better way to approach motivation, which raises a question: If there is a proven better way to approach motivation, why aren’t more leaders using it?

This question has three potential answers. Which of the three best describes you?

Potential Answer 1: You are not aware of the evidence.

A funny thing happened on the way to understanding human motivation. Psychologists decided to study animals. For example, you can watch Harvard psychology professor B.F. Skinner on YouTube showing how he “motivates” a conditioned pigeon to do a 360-degree turn by rewarding its behavior with pellets. It is fascinating to watch—he rewards the bird for doing what he wants it to do and he can get it to do almost anything. Behaviorists reasoned that this method could motivate people in the workplace the same way—reward people for doing what you want them to do and you can get them to do most anything. And guess what? It worked—or seemed to. My coauthors and I call it the Pecking Pigeon Paradigm.

Using metaphorical pellets as incentives to “motivate” employees to do tasks they don’t necessarily want to do has become common practice. A massive industry has evolved providing complex schemes to motivate workers with compensation systems, rewards, contests, tokens, badges, prizes, and formal recognition programs. Pellets and more pellets.

Current data clearly demonstrate the futility of the Pecking Pigeon Paradigm. In thousands of experiments worldwide, the results are the same: Even though people will take the money or rewards you offer, the only correlation between those incentives and performance is a negative one. In other words, external rewards produce a disturbing undermining effect on the energy, vitality, and sense of positive well-being people need to achieve goals, attain excellence, and sustain effort (Murayama, K., Matsumoto, M., et al., 2010; Kerr, N., Feltz, D., et al., 2012.).

Traditional forms of motivation may appear to work in some types of jobs or industries. For example, if you promise people more pellets, they may produce more on the assembly line in the short term. However, it is unwise to confuse productivity with thriving and flourishing. Without thriving and flourishing, short-term gains tend to turn into long-term opportunity losses. 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.

While this book provides relevant research to help you appreciate the compelling evidence showing how outdated modes of motivating people do not work, its focus is on helping you develop the leadership skills to take advantage of it.

Potential Answer 2: You don’t believe the evidence.

  • Can you complete these statements?
  • It’s not personal, it’s just ________.
  • The purpose of business is to _____ _______.
  • Leaders are in a position of __________.
  • The only thing that really matters is _______.
  • If you cannot measure it, it _________ ________.

These beliefs are so embedded in our collective psyche that you probably don’t even need to check your answers. Just because these statements are common doesn’t mean they are legitimate. I encourage you to consider that holding on to these beliefs may undermine your ability to effectively investigate alternatives, change your methods of motivation, and embrace new ways of leading. Chapter 6: Rethinking Five Beliefs that Erode Workplace Motivation challenges you to reconsider your own beliefs about motivation, where they come from, and if they still serve you, your people, and your outcomes.

Through the exploration of evidence and alternative approaches to motivation, I hope you will come to appreciate how your basic beliefs may be undermining your leadership intentions. For example, your belief in driving for results may be creating the psychological distress, tension, and pressure that makes it less likely you’ll get the quality short-term results or sustainable long-term outcomes—that you—and those you lead—are seeking.

Potential Answer 3: You don’t know what to do with the evidence.

You may be familiar with scientific evidence proving how traditional methods of motivation undermine employees’ quality of work and productivity (Ryan, R., and Deci, E., 2000; Deci, E. and Ryan, R., 2002 and 2008; Pink, D., 2009). It may have captured your imagination and piqued your curiosity. But as often happens in attempts to simplify science, the ideas get boiled down to clichés that make them difficult to use. For example, extolling the virtues of intrinsic motivation resonates with most of us at a deep level. It also causes fear and trepidation as the leader within you wonders: What are alternatives to abandoning the stick and weaning people off the carrot? How do I get and keep people intrinsically motivated? As well intentioned as these questions are, they still reflect a traditional approach to motivation that suggests motivation is something you do to people.

Popular books and speakers are doing the important job of raising awareness about the positive attributes of intrinsic motivation and the detrimental effects of extrinsic motivation. But the simplistic duality of good-bad, internal-external, either-or does not provide enough depth to use the ideas in a meaningful way.

Misunderstanding what motivation means leads to a misapplication of techniques to make it happen.

Admitting that many traditional approaches to motivation practiced all these years have been counterproductive—or worse, destructive—frees us up for new ways of looking at motivation. We need to realize that applying pressure to achieve results has undermined the results we were seeking. We need to consider that promoting competition or winning a contest is not the best way to encourage and sustain performance. We need to appreciate that—despite the practical need for money, and people’s incessant requests for more—the focus on monetary rewards has obscured what really satisfies people in their jobs. It appears motivating people doesn’t work, and leaders need alternatives that do. It is time to stop beating our people with carrots and sticks and embrace different, more effective, leadership strategies.

When it comes to motivation, we have underestimated ourselves—and it seems, perhaps even cheated ourselves—of something richer and much more meaningful than pellets, carrots, and sticks. By falling prey to the outdated Pecking Pigeon Paradigm, we convinced ourselves that was the nature of motivation, and we bypassed the more human reasons we work.

The new science of motivation is full of promise. There are alternatives to the outdated Pecking Pigeon Paradigm and the constant grind to provide more and better pellets to get people to do what you want them to do. It shouldn’t surprise you that people don’t find those pigeon pellets satisfying.

Excerpt from “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does” by Susan Fowler. For more information, visit

Susan Fowler has 30 years of experience as a researcher, consultant, and coach in more than 30 countries around the globe in the field of leadership. As an expert in the field of personal empowerment, she is the lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Company’s Optimal Motivation product line, as well as Situational Self Leadership, its self- leadership and personal empowerment program. Fowler is the bestselling co-author of three books with Ken Blanchard: “Self Leadership and the One-Minute Manager,” “Leading at  Higher Level,” and “Empowerment.” She also authored audio programs Overcoming Procrastination and Mentoring. She is a senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Companies, and a professor in the Master of Science Leadership Program at the University of San Diego. For more information, visit

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