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Research Confirms: Perks and Rewards Don’t Motivate People

Nicole Klemp
Nicole Klemp

In a recent New York Times op-ed, author and human behavior expert, Alfie Kohn, outlined what decades of research (surprisingly) reveals: when people are incentivized to do something, they generally lose interest in doing it.

Kohn compared this idea to the behavior of pets: If your dog does a trick and you give her a treat, she’ll be more likely to perform the trick again… because she wants to get more treats. You would expect that the same logic would apply to humans, but in fact, years of scientific studies show, humans do not respond in the same way. In fact, our motivation often decreases after we’ve been rewarded for something.

So, what does all this mean when it comes to motivating people at work? It seems to tell us that if you’re relying on prizes, perks, badges, or even cash bonuses to motivate employees to do their best work, it may not be as effective as you hope.

If people aren’t motivated by rewards, what are they motivated by?

It turns out, people are more motivated and engaged when they’re inspired by the work itself. They desire to be part of a greater mission and thrive more on the satisfaction of achievement than the obtainment of awards. This might explain why many people (particularly millennials) will choose to take a lower salary to work at a company with a mission they’re passionate about.

“Psychologists often distinguish between intrinsic motivation (wanting to do something for its own sake) and extrinsic motivation (for example, doing something in order to snag a goody). The first is the best predictor of high-quality achievement, and it can actually be undermined by the second. Moreover, when you promise people a reward, they often perform more poorly as a result,” writes Kohn.

To create environments in which employees are more engaged in their work and performing at a higher level, leaders need to focus more on those intrinsic motivators.

There are 17 drivers of employee engagement, including things like purpose, shared values, and authenticity. Employees who feel their work is purposeful will be more engaged than someone who lacks a sense of purpose in their work, despite getting some nice company perks.

Different people have different intrinsic motivators.

Before you cancel the holiday bonus checks or get rid of donut Fridays, remember this: It’s okay to reward your employees for good work; it’s not okay to use rewards to bribe people into doing good work.

It’s up to leaders to find out how to motivate employees on their teams and create an environment that allows them to spread their wings and do their best work. Of those 14 drivers of engagement — purpose, role clarity, utilization, autonomy, shared values, friendship, trust, authenticity, fairness, feedback, manager relationship, rest, competency, and professional development — which ones are the most impactful for your people? How do you know if your employees’ individual needs are being met? The only way to find out is for executives and managers to interface with employees regularly, through both one-on-one meetings and using confidential feedback channels.

For example, one employee might be highly motivated by opportunities for growth or professional development. Another might be driven more by their relationship with their manager and friendships with colleagues. While every engagement driver matters for every employee, some are weighted more heavily, depending on individual personalities and work styles.

You’re (probably) not psychic, so you need to ask employees what they need to do their best work.

In many organizations, the CEO is considered the hardest-working person in the company. Why is that? It’s likely because they feel more of a sense of ownership over the business’s success than anyone else. Now imagine going 3, 4, even 5 levels down the organization to an individual contributor. It’s much harder for that person to see how their work impacts the company as a whole.

Finding out what individual employees need to motivate them and connecting their work to greater company goals is far more valuable than offering perks or bonuses. Getting employee feedback and applying it to real actions in the business can improve engagement, performance, and even employees’ well-being.

Warm and freshly-baked engagement lessons

Ever gotten a bagel from Panera Bread and thought Wow, what a great experience, I wonder how they motivate their employees? We have. So we asked their CEO to share his recipe for success. Check out this on-demand webinar and get inspired: 5 Lessons on Leadership and Engagement with Blaine Hurst, President & CEO, Panera Bread.

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