Stop trying to motivate your employees!

When I was a kid, my mom decided to expand our family’s collective palate and serve sauerkraut for dinner. For the three of us under age 10, this was tantamount to torture. We spent the first hour at the table crying and begging for something else, but finally, two of us choked down a few bites and spit the rest into our napkins. Despite my parents’ threats, my sister Phoebe sat for another hour, refusing to eat a single bite. She spent the rest of that day in her bedroom, and she never learned to like sauerkraut.

Kids hate being told what to do. But the truth is that people don’t outgrow that feeling. Sure, we will give in when threatened by a big enough stick or rewarded by a tasty enough carrot, but we will also begin to harbor resentment if never given autonomy to make our own decisions.

In the workplace we continue to put a lot of energy into “employee performance management” as if people behave like replicable and predictable robots that can be manipulated and controlled. Neuroscience can shed some light on why we are hard-wired to resist extrinsic motivation and prone to creative thinking and problem-solving when we are intrinsically motivated. Scientifically speaking, the more we try to “fix” a person or attempt to “get” him or her to change, the more powerful that person’s brain signals that something is wrong. The result is, for that person’s “animal instincts” to take over and readily overpower any rational thought. Not exactly conductive to peak performance.

So, if you can’t motivate your employees to change, what can you do? The goal is to create a healthy workplace that fosters creativity and innovation, where employees are empowered and self-motivated.

1. Begin by asking employees questions that allow them to initiate their own thoughts. This is a critical component to autonomy, employee engagement, and lasting organizational change. Take care to be authentic when you are asking questions, as the brain has a keen ability to detect the difference between authentic inquiry (i.e., I’m asking you a question for no other reason than I’m genuinely interested in you) and persuasion (i.e., I’m asking you a question to try to “get” you to somewhere I think you should be).2 Our Thriving Workplace Culture Survey is a great tool to help you understand your employees’ attitudes toward your organization.

2. Stop using incentives and punishments to “get” people to change. This kind of coercion is unsupported by literature and, in fact, has been shown to actually erode intrinsic motivation. Over the last 20 years, business and leadership researchers have definitively demonstrated that the key to organizational effectiveness is having committed employees who are empowered and intrinsically motivated. 3 People are motivated by work when they understand how it contributes to something beyond themselves; work that provides them with autonomy, growth, meaning, and purpose.

3. Focus on developing more effective thinking in employees, not on measuring outward behaviors alone. Most managers choose behavior measurement as a primary path to achieving greater accountability, focus, teamwork, innovation, and quality and then spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to find the right reward to tie to the right measure. The brain has an innate desire to solve its own problems and create novel connections. When people are able to work out their own solutions, the brain rewards them with pleasure.3 Let people solve their own problems and watch how their satisfaction motivates them to be more productive. Create an environment where employees are allowed to make their own decisions and then your employees will exceed expectations.

Many years after the sauerkraut incident, my mother confided to my sisters and me that trying to get us to eat something we hated was worse punishment for her than it was for us.

Don’t punish your entire organization by trying to force motivation on your employees. Instead, focus on creating the conditions that will free, fuel and inspire your employees to bring their best selves to work each day. Download a FREE chapter of How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work for a blueprint that will help you get started!

  1. Charles Duhigg (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
  1. Rock D. & Schwartz, J. (2006, Summer). The neuroscience of leadership. Strategy+Business, 43, 1-10.
  1. Charles S. Jacobs (2009). Management Rewired. New York: Penguin Group.

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at rosie@salveopartners.com or drrosieward.com.

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