Motivation Research: Understanding What Drives You

Motivating someone to action is, in most cases, the same as persuading them. Some would argue that persuasion is about attitude; and motivation is toward an action.

We will review 3 reports on three studies that recently came in.

In the first, you find out whether giving bonuses is more effective at motivating employees than giving them merit raises. (You can see how that maps over to things other than money, yes?)

In the second, you get to see if avoiding punishment is its own reward. (That’s one of the big keys in marketing and selling, right?)

In the third, you’ll read a fascinating report where one of my favorite researchers, Steven Reiss, says that there is no such thing as intrinsic motivation. (In future, we’ll talk about how important that is for you and me to “know”, or at least consider.)

Using Your Pay System to Improve Employees’ Performance

Giving a 1 percent raise boosts employee job performance by roughly 2 percent, but offering that same money in the form of a bonus that is strongly linked to a job well done can improve job performance by almost 20 percent (!), finds a new Cornell study on the relationship between pay and performance. By changing the strength of the pay-for-performance relationship [awarding bonuses], you can improve performance by up to 19 percent.”

In other words, giving someone a 1 percent raise is 1/10 as effective as giving them a one time bonus of the same amount of money. The raise would likely carry into the future, of course, and a bonus is a one time only deal.

Is avoiding punishment its own reward? …

To give your child an incentive to cut the lawn, you might offer to buy her something, or you might threaten to withhold her regular allowance. Does the child respond the same way to reward as she does to avoiding punishment?

Psychologists have evidence from certain kinds of behavioral experiments to believe that avoiding punishment is itself a reward. The IRS has built the world’s largest scam by promising to punish people who don’t pay the money requested. (You can’t really “owe” taxes. You did nothing to have a debt. You simply pay or experience pain.)

Avoiding negative outcomes and receiving rewards amount to the same thing for the brain: achieving a goal.
Reward serves as an external signal that reinforces behavior associated with a positive outcome.

Does “Intrinsic Motivation” Even Exist?

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from inside an individual rather than from any external or outside rewards, such as money or grades.

While some psychologists still argue that people perform better when they do something because they want to — rather than for some kind of reward, such as money — Steven Reiss suggests we shouldn’t even make that distinction.

Individuals differ enormously in what makes them happy – for some competition, winning and wealth are the greatest sources of happiness, but for others, feeling competent or socializing may be more satisfying. The point is that you can’t say some motivations, like money, are inherently inferior.

For example, the argument is that children are naturally curious and enjoy learning for the joy it brings them. Grades, they argue, are an extrinsic reward that fosters competition and makes learning less pleasurable. There are many children for whom the important reward to them is the grades they get, the competition among classmates. This goes against what some psychologists say, who think competition is bad and a non-competitive attitude is good, and that learning and curiosity are intrinsic values that everyone shares. They are pushing their own value system on to everybody.

Source: The study, “Using Your Pay System to Improve Employees’ Performance: How You Pay Makes a Difference,” is available at no charge from the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research

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