Why More Money Alone DOESN’T Equal More Motivation

More money could lead a person to choose one job over another, but once in the job, there may be things more important than money in inspiring an engaged, highly performing staff.

Last week, I was reminded of Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive,” by a doctor I interviewed for an article on how he incentivizes his employees. Pink argues that people are driven more by intrinsic motivators than external motivators, such as money. Specifically, he cites three intrinsic motivators:

Autonomy—Our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance.

Mastery—The urge to get better skills.

Purpose—The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

“In other words,” I said to the doctor, “a person won’t be motivated by a job in which they are micromanaged, given no development opportunities, and given no explanation about what they are working toward. They end up feeling they are plugging away at tasks they have little control over, will never get better at, and which appear to have no purpose.”

The doctor said that was exactly it. He found in his own practice that offering only monetary incentives didn’t do a thing to inspire better performance and higher profitability. What worked far better was individual recognition in front of peers and incentives that were creative and experiential. He remembered one time, years ago, when he gave a gift card to a standout employee during the middle of a workday as a surprise. He told her there were two catches: She had two hours to spend it immediately at a nearby shopping mall, and had to show everyone in the office what she bought. The incentive ended up being fun and memorable for not just the employee, but all of her colleagues. She returned within the allotted time with gifts for all of her co-workers.

Other experiential rewards that are powerful: taking all the employees out for a nice meal or to see a show together, or, if you can afford it, on a trip. I mentioned to the doctor that I used to write articles about the incentive trips some companies give to employees who meet sales goals. The doctor said he had experienced those trips himself, accompanying his salesperson wife on lavish excursions. We both thought with amazement about how luxurious and over-the-top those trips are, and how the companies that offer them feel they are worth it, regardless of the high cost. They could just offer employees who make sales goals more money, but an experience to work toward, such as a trip, is more inspirational.

Giving an employee a gift or gift card is also a better option than more money alone. The company that used to own Training magazine also used to own Potentials magazine, which was focused on the many gifts companies can give to employees to reward and recognize. One memorable time, the Potentials staff invited writers from all of its sister publications to help review gift baskets filled with every kind of food you can imagine. It was, by far, one of the most fun experiences from that period of my work life. Individual gifts, like baskets filled with food, work well, but it might work even better to bring in a large gift basket for the staff to enjoy together.

The opportunity for an employee to advance in his or her career also shouldn’t be underestimated as a motivator. I noted once in an annual performance review that my now- (thankfully) retired former boss had placed me in a development box. He shut me out of meetings where I could have shared ideas and gotten the kind of exposure that leads to new and different assignments. He went so far as to take the ideas I had sent to him and our department head, and presented them on my behalf, without even inviting me to the meeting! That treatment does little to increase an employee’s mastery of his or her work, or his or her sense of autonomy and purpose.

As we move into the fall, companies will be thinking about how they should reward their employees around the holidays. My department head recently told me there was a possibility I might receive a year-end bonus if our department, and my publication, both reached financial goals set by the company. I very much hope that happens, so I can enjoy the first-ever monetary bonus of my career. However, the greater respect I have experienced since the retirement of my former boss is worth more.

How do you recognize employees at your company? What kinds of material incentives, if any, do you offer? What has proven to work best in inspiring greater work performance?


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