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Steve Motenko
personal coach & leadership trainer
Seattle, Washington
Greatly helpful
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When Pulling Teeth Gets Old

Want to motivate someone? There's a cultural myth about motivation that has most of us believing exactly the opposite of what's true. Reward people to get them to perform? Forget it.
Written Jun 18, 2010, read 1477 times since then.


I got pushback last week on a presentation I did on motivation.  I was challenging sacred cows, and a number of the business people present didn’t like it.

My central message:  if you want long-term quality, creativity, team-playing, and initiative in the workplace, “do-this-and-you’ll-get-that” incentives don’t work. What do they work for?

  • performance of routine tasks: if you’re filling out paperwork and I give you a dollar for every form successfully completed, you’ll do it faster.
  • controlling people in the short term: if you’re habitually showing up late, and I fine you for it, you’ll stop (... or you’ll cheat the time-card system).

But these kinds of “if/then” rewards don’t produce sustainable motivation — especially for higher-level work habits. That has to live inside the employee.

Incentives for performance focus the mind on the reward, not on the performance.  They thus encourage cheating, short-cutting, and hoarding my knowledge and skills so I’m the one who gets the prize.

Even worse, they actually reduce interest in the work being performed. Why?  If I bribe you for doing something (or threaten you for not doing it), I’m telling you that “something” isn’t worth doing for its own sake.  Fined for showing up late, I’ll quickly learn to hate the time clock and resent getting to work on time.  I’ll do it, but I’ll resent it.  It’s human nature.  And not the best attitude for employees to carry into work.

You get sustainable motivation by:

  1. building the connections that employees feel — with their boss, with their team, with the mission of the organization.  E.g. "When you show up late, here's how it impacts your teammates.  Do you want to continue to let them down?"
  2. giving them a say in their own destiny -- choices throughout their day -- to whatever extent possible given the constraints they must work under.

To the first point:  If I feel a sense of belonging at work — that’s motivation that can’t be bought.

To the second:  choices = freedom.  What human doesn’t need freedom?  With as much freedom as I can be trusted with, I can express my best self at work in ways that make me feel proud.  That’s sustainable, and it doesn’t need a reward.

Recognition?  Appreciation?  They’re essential.  Earned promotions and pay raises?  Of course.  Everyone deserves to be treated fairly according to their contribution.  But these strategies are all after the fact, and they’re authentic.  They’re not, “If you be a good boy, I’ll give you a goody.” That’s called manipulation.  What humans enjoy being manipulated?

Not sure about all these ideas?  I don't blame you.  The cultural myth, that if we "incentivize" people they'll do a better job, is so deeply ingrained in us -- from our parents, from our teachers, and from popular culture -- that it's hard to rise above it.  But if you're a manager, and you want commitment and  quality from your employees, you have no choice but to rise above it -- or be left behind. 

Look -- read one or both of these two classic, highly readable overviews of decades of motivational research — Drive, by Daniel Pink, and Punished By Rewards, by Alfie Kohn — and then tell me if you still disagree that do-this-and-you’ll-get-that style “incentives” are overrated.  Fact is, they are counterproductive to the long-term thriving of your organization.

Learn more about the author, Steve Motenko.

Comment on this article

  • Payment Card Processing, Credit/Debit Card Merchant Services, Gift Cards, PCI Compliance 
Gig Harbor, Washington 
Timothy Sternling
    Posted by Timothy Sternling, Gig Harbor, Washington | Jun 21, 2010

    Henry Ford came to the same conclusion with impressive results. Seems like the Ford Motor Company is still making money. I wonder how they do it?

    Thanks Steve,


  • Business Builder 
Seattle, Washington 
Viktor Lawryniuk
    Posted by Viktor Lawryniuk, Seattle, Washington | Jun 22, 2010

    Building connections seems to be key to good outcomes. Health, happiness, effectiveness and, thanks to your article I can see how that impacts motivation. Thanks!

  • Intentional Interior Design: feng shui meets green design 
Seattle, Washington 
Piper Lauri Salogga
    Posted by Piper Lauri Salogga, Seattle, Washington | Jun 24, 2010

    I totally agree. Connections and trust are where it's at -- freedom being given to those that are trusted from those that are trusting. I think we're all motivated by relationship and our own inherent drive to do a great job at what we enjoy. I like goody rewards too... but they just make me fat - LOL.

  • Wise Woman, Shaman, Author, Aura Portraits 
Anacortes, Washington 
Elke Siller Macartney
    Posted by Elke Siller Macartney, Anacortes, Washington | Jun 28, 2010

    thank you Steve, for treating professionals and entrepreneurs as adults working with other adults, and not adults trying to coddle children or their own childish habits.

    Motivation is an inside job, as I've come to find after 25 years of on and off differing motivational patterns.

    For instance, in our recent hiring of folks to assist in the marketing of my husband's new book, and looking to them to possibly market my upcoming book, I found that if there isn't a connection to the work as a deeper motivation (ie, getting the word out because the person sees the work as important), then it was money and time wasted. Pretty disappointing, frankly-- yet waiting it out, and finding the people who , as mature, thoughtful adults, find their motivation through working with something they believe in is beginning to open up the possibilities of not having to coddle and 'reward" and manipulate in the future.

    Manipulation is no fun. Yet adults are allowed to have fun while working at a deeper level, yes?

    Thanks again! Elke

  • Sales Manager 
Xiamen, Fujian  China 
David  Wei
    Posted by David Wei, Xiamen, Fujian China | Jul 07, 2010


    Incentives does not always work.If you award someone too often,even based on good performance,he or she will reduce interests in work gradually.At their beginning,they are very happy.however,after a few month,they get used to it and are looking for higher grade of incentive.

    There is a certain limitation with our group and I worried that one day we can not satisfy their needs.One of them will left.However,it is quite common.

    Regnition and appreciation does not always work as well. Thanks,David

  • personal coach & leadership trainer 
Seattle, Washington 
Steve Motenko
    Posted by Steve Motenko, Seattle, Washington | Jul 08, 2010

    Elke - Nice to hear from you! And couldn't agree with you more vis-a-vis the critical importance of "a connection to the work as a deeper motivation."

    And to your question about people being "allowed to have fun while working at a deeper level" -- FUN is one of the biggest intrinsic motivators, yes? All animals need to play!

    Hope you're taking time to play. And I wish you and Jim much success on his book.

    Namaste, my friend.

  • personal coach & leadership trainer 
Seattle, Washington 
Steve Motenko
    Posted by Steve Motenko, Seattle, Washington | Jul 08, 2010

    David --

    I completely agree with your comments. And with regard to recognition and appreciation, here are my thoughts: The more AUTHENTIC, PERSONAL and SPECIFIC the comment, the more motivational it can be. If the comment fosters the employee's sense of self-motivation (rather than making the employee more dependent on the boss's approval), then it taps into their INTRINSIC motivation -- and that's good.

    But if the "recognition" is in PUBLIC, or VAGUE, or OBLIGATORY, it's unlikely to have a positive effect.

    Do you agree?

  • Your Personal Growth Coach! 
Vancouver, British Columbia Canada 
Bonnie Copeland
    Posted by Bonnie Copeland, Vancouver, British Columbia Canada | Jul 10, 2010


    Your points are well taken even though some might find it hard to swallow. Praise (or other incentives) for praise sake only produces a dimishing effect. For any incentive or reward to be effective it must fit the deed, be authentic and honest.
    Truly, watch small children for the truth in this! Even a young child knows the difference and reacts with boredom or indifference to false praise. In fact it causes confusion and some frustration.
    Adults are not terribly different in their reactions, we just tend to hide it better and show our lack of interest or frustrations in more subtle ways.
    I do think that incentives can have a spot somewhere to allow those who go beyond to be rewarded, but I think they can often be misused by managment who do not understand how to motivate themselves nor their team on more than a surface level.

    Thanks, Bonnie