Workplace Policy

The Science Of Motivation

By Ryan Scholz

Most managers feel that a major part of their job is to motivate people who work for them. The problem that many have is distinguishing the difference between motivation and manipulation. Managers who attempt to motivate through manipulation will actually get worse results than those managers who simply stay out of the way and let people do what comes naturally to them.

Lets start with a definition of motivation:

Motivation is the internal psychological force that causes an person to move towards a achieving a goal.

Read this definition several times to get the full meaning of it.

Note that motivation is internally driven. People must motivate themselves. Managers dont motivate people. Rather managers create conditions and an environment where people are self motivated.

Secondly, without a goal, motivation doesnt exist.


In order for people to be motivated, there must be a sense of purpose and reason for expending the mental and physical energy required. The goal must have meaning to the person.

Psychologists have studied human motivation for years. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between what science knows about human motivation and behavior, and what the business world does.

For example, science tells us that extrinsic motivators, fear and reward, are temporary and dont change underlying attitudes which influence behavior. Yet, many organizations rely mainly or exclusively on extrinsic motivation to stimulate higher levels of performance.

In a study done by MIT, and then replicated several times since, researchers studied the impact of rewards on performance. The results in every case showed that if the task involved even a small amount of cognitive ability (thinking, creating, reasoning, problem solving, etc.), the higher the reward the worse the performance. The only time the size of the reward related to performance was for physical tasks where the amount of physical effort expended correlated directly to performance.

That is not to say that people are not motivated by money. If people feel that they are not compensated fairly, it will have an impact on their performance. Money is what Frederick Herzberg calls a hygiene factor. According to Herzberg, hygiene factors are sources of demotivation if not addressed, but in themselves do not provide motivation.

The science of motivation says that higher performance will only come when people are intrinsically motivated. According to research by Dan Pink, three factors correlated with high levels of intrinsic motivation.

The first is autonomy. Autonomy is having the freedom to control and direct ones own work. Managers who want to have employees with high levels of intrinsic motivation need to let their people do the job. I have used quote by Bill Oncken many times because I think it is such a good piece of advice for any managerPractice hands off management as much as possible, and hands on management only as necessary. People learn responsibility only when they are given responsibility.

With todays technology that enables a manager to stay in touch and be available 24/7, I worry that we are creating a generation of workers who wont make a decision because they can easily find the boss and get him or her to make the decision.

The second factor that Pink finds correlates with intrinsic motivation is mastery. Mastery is the natural human urge to grow, learn, and get better. We are all naturally competitive with ourselves and with others. People are more apt to be intrinsically motivated if there is challenge in the job. Measurement and goal setting facilitate mastery. Ive observed many times that all a manager has to do is give people some way to keep score on the job, and then let the people go.

The third factor is purpose. Purpose is the feeling of being able to make a contribution. The more that people find meaning and significance in their work, the more that they will be intrinsically motivated.

In one plant that I managed, we had a standard practice of having the management staff take customers and other important visitors on plant tours. Over time we began to let the front line workers do the tours. We found it was a lot more impressive to our customers to have the workers talk about what they did, than a group of us upper level people. The ownership and commitment of the front line workforce increased significantly and they were able to associate what they did on a daily basis with our customers. This increased their intrinsic motivation without costing the company anything.

About the Author: Ryan Scholz works with leaders whose success is dependent on getting commitment and high performance from others. He is author of Turning Potential into Action: Eight Principles for Creating a Highly Engaged Work Place. For more information, visit his web site at





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