In the issue of motivation — specifically the “carrot and stick” aspect — new research seems to indicate that brain chemicals may control behaviour and for people to learn and adapt in the world, both punishment and reward may be necessary. This conclusion would certainly run counter to the trend toward positive motivation without extrinsic reward or punishment.
Are there genetic and brain chemistry factors that could influence our perspective on this issue?
Hanneke den Ouden and Roshan Cools and their colleagues from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and at New York University have published research in the journal Neuron, that concludes brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine related genes influence how we base our choices on past punishments or rewards. This influence depends on which gene variant you inherited.
Den Ouden explains: “We discovered that the dopamine gene affects how we learn from the long-term consequences of our choices, while the serotonin gene affects our choices in the short term… It all depends on their genetic material.”
What implications does this have on the issue of employee motivation in the workplace?
Motivating people to do their best work, consistently, has been an enduring challenge for executives and managers. Even understanding what constitutes human motivation has been a centuries-old puzzle, addressed as far back as Aristotle.
When Frederick Herzberg researched the sources of employee motivation during the 1950s and 1960s, he discovered a dichotomy that still intrigues and baffles managers: The things that make people satisfied and motivated on the job are different in kind from the things that make them dissatisfied. Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work, and you’ll hear them talk about insufficient pay or an uncomfortable work environment, or “stupid” regulations and policies that are restraining or the lack of job flexibility and freedom. Environmental factors can be demotivating, but even if managed brilliantly, fixing these factors won’t motivate people to work harder or smarter.
It turns out that people are motivated by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility — intrinsic factors. People have a deep-seated need for growth and achievement. Herzberg’s work influenced a generation of scholars and researchers — but never seemed to make an impact on managers in the workplace, where the focus on motivation remained the “carrot-and-stick” approach, or external motivators.
A review of research literature by James R. Lindner at Ohio State University concluded employee motivation is driven more by factors such as interesting work than financial compensation. John Baldoni, author of Great Motivation Secrets of Great Leaders, concluded motivation comes from wanting to do something of one’s own free will, and that motivation is simply leadership wanting to do what is right for people and the organization.
In Drive, Daniel Pink, describes “the surprising truth” about what motivates us. Pink concludes that extrinsic motivators work only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances; rewards often destroy creativity and employee performance; and the secret to high performance isn’t reward and punishment but that unseen intrinsic drive to do something because it’s meaningful.
True motivation boils down to three elements: Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the desire to continually improve at something that matters to us; and purpose, the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves, Pink says. Joining a chorus of many, he warns that the traditional “command-and-control” management methods in which organizations use money as a contingent reward for a task, are not only ineffective as motivators, but are actually harmful.
The carrot-and-stick approach worked well for typical tasks of the early 20th century – routine, unchallenging and highly controlled. For tasks where the process is straightforward and lateral thinking is not required, rewards can provide a small motivation without harmful side effects.
However, jobs in the 21st century have become more complex, more interesting and more self-directed, and this is where the carrot-and-stick approach has become unstuck. The implications for leaders are significant. They must both be cognizant of the latest research on motivation, and take action to make those organizational and relationship changes.
Ray Williams is President of Ray Williams Associates, a Vancouver-based company providing leadership training and executive coaching services. He is also a contributing author to a new best selling book, Ready, Aim, Influence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org