Understanding Motivation


Very few people in this world have the luxury of working for fun. Most of us work in order to pay the bills that provide food, shelter, and occasional recreation. We work to survive. We work because we have no choice. Depending on your personal situation, not working would cause many to wind up on the streets, losing their homes, their families, and their friends – and some do. Since we really have no other alternative, we might as well try to make the best of the situation, and that’s what we do. Some say working is not who we are, it is what we do. I concur. But since “what we do” takes up approximately 1/3 of our lives, it behooves us to do something that fulfills us personally. As Tom Peters stresses in his book The Pursuit of WOW!:

…Do what turns you on, not what the statistics say is best. Business, life itself, is damned hard work if you wanna be good at it. Actually, that’s precisely wrong. Business ceases to be work when you’re chasing a dream that has engorged you. (“Work should be more fun than fun” – Noel Coward.) And if the passion isn’t there, then biotech and plumbing will be equal drags.

One might argue that what Peters suggests is easier said than done. The heart of his point, however, is what propels us to move from job to job to job. Even being highly proficient in our occupation, we still switch jobs. Why do so many people switch jobs so often nowadays? Usually it’s because something in that job stops gratifying them. Our sense of personal fulfillment wanes, and we feel compelled to adjust our inner compass towards something we think is more fulfilling. This chapter explores those areas that cause many of us to seek something better.


Every year several studies announce the top reasons of employee satisfaction. Consistently, and surprisingly for some, money is not at the top of the list. Recognition, challenge, respect, and other “soft” indicators head the list. But different people define recognition differently. For simplicity sake, let’s divide recognition into two types: M and N. Type M recognition is recognition through monetary means. Monetary recognition includes gifts, cash, gift certificates, vacations, days off, bonuses, stock, raises, and the like. Type N recognition is recognition through non-monetary means. Included in this type is peer recognition, more challenging assignments, more autonomy, involvement in more significant decisions, collaboration, etc. Depending on which type you use, and your manner of recognizing employees, you will most likely see a significantly different response. You can expect to see short-term productivity improvement by using Type M recognition and long-term, more lasting improvement, by using Type N recognition. Either way, the purpose of using each method is to motivate people, thereby increasing their personal fulfillment. Let’s explore each of these types of recognition in more detail.

Type M Motivation

There exists a significant amount of research supporting the idea that monetary recognition, especially cash, neither motivates people to perform better nor increases productivity, while performing complex or creative tasks. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that, in fact, this form of recognition can actually produces the opposite effect! You are probably thinking that this is rubbish. How can such a pervasive and popular method of motivation simply not work? Could it be that a method being used by practically every company, and practically every supervisor, in almost every country in the world not produce significant results? Could it be that so many people are just missing something? In a nutshell the answer is – yes and no.

For the most part, managers have good intentions. Managers want their employees to perform well on the job with minimal supervision. When employees do not perform well, the real challenge of management comes into play. Therefore, managers need the skills to “turn around” a poorly performing employee. But as indicated previously, most managers have not been trained in the skills and theories that can enable them to effectively change someone’s performance. However, everyone is familiar with at least one theory of motivation that is widely practiced: “do this, and you’ll get that.” This is the “carrot and stick” theory of motivation popularized by many well-known psychologists, especially B.F. Skinner, and taught in most introductory psychology courses. Skinner focused on how an action can be controlled by a stimulus that comes after it rather than before it. Skinnerian theory suggests that when reinforcement follows a behavior, the behavior is likely to be repeated. Very few can dispute that certain reinforcements (positive or negative) help people to learn some new behaviors. Everyone has learned not to put a finger into a fire because of the pain it will inflict. A child learns that they will receive goodies when they eat a good dinner. And an employee learns they will receive more money when they increase the number of units passing through quality control.

The trouble with this popular behaviorism, or operant conditioning, is that it’s used too frequently without understanding its consequences. Without understanding how or when to use this method, managers blindly use it as a means to get people to perform a certain way or to control people’s behavior. To many managers, this method of motivation is logical. If given a reward to aim for, so the thinking goes, people will do what is necessary to obtain that reward. By employing this theory, however, management assumes quite a bit. First, the manager creating the reward assumes he/she knows that the particular reward is what everyone wants. Let’s say that the reward for doing X is a $1,000 bonus. The manager thinks, “Gee who wouldn’t want a thousand bucks.” Well, depending on a person’s personal situation, current needs, confidence in succeeding, past experience, effort in order to succeed, attitude towards the boss or company, opinion about the reason behind the reward, or a multitude of other things, a given individual may or may not be motivated by this reward. The point is, what seems to be motivational to one person, may actually be de-motivating to another. Most reasonable people would agree with this statement. And if you do agree, then you should ask yourself, does it make sense to present an incentive that might actually create the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish? Why roll those dice knowing your odds are slim that you will succeed in creating an incentive that will universally motivate everyone, and will continue motivating them over the long term? Second, even if the manager knew that this incentive is something everyone wanted, the motivational factor ($$$) for a given individual may change from the time the incentive is presented to the time the incentive is paid out. An individual’s circumstances can change in a blink of an eye, and suddenly that $1,000 bonus is not so appealing. Alternatively, what once seemed to be an obtainable bonus may turn out to be more difficult than previously anticipated, or someone has a run in with the manager and suddenly becomes de-motivated. So, motivational factors continuously change and evolve.

Now let’s go back to the bonus. If obtaining the $1,000 bonus was easy, it wouldn’t be $1,000 it would be $100 or $50. Which brings us to point three: The manager assumes he knows the value of effort in order to obtain the reward. In one small, struggling Internet consulting firm, finding qualified programmers was extremely difficult. Demand for these individuals, at the time, was extraordinarily high, while supply was very short. The success of this firm depended on finding these people so they could grow the business. Each programmer they hired and placed on a project was more revenue for the firm. After many failed attempts by the inside recruiter in finding these people, management decided to offer a reward of $2,000 to each employee for each programmer that they recommended and the firm hired. Confident that this would do the trick, they announced this incentive at the next company meeting. What do you think happened? Nothing. The reward could have been $20,000 and they would have seen the same result. Management was looking for people that were simply not available or not interested in working for a small start-up company.

One sales manger I spoke with lamented to me that he knows how to motivate people. He said the secret was not creating a universal incentive plan, but to learn and understand each person’s driving force, that thing that drives or energizes someone towards a particular goal. He believes, and rightfully so, that this drive is different for everyone. One person might be driven towards money, another towards notoriety, and yet another towards personal challenge. He said that it was his job to design an incentive tailored to each person’s driving force. This sounds like a good theory but it is peppered with flaws. One glaring flaw is that sometimes even trained psychologists can’t figure out what motivates a person, and sometimes the individuals themselves don’t even know what motivates them. Besides this flaw, the fact that it would be a monumental task keeping up with the motivational moving target prohibits this from being practical. Another flaw in this concept is it doesn’t take into account how the reward/recognition is being offered. There is nothing wrong with giving someone an object or cash in and of itself. The problem is holding the reward until the person meets a certain goal or acts a certain way. As pointed out in Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards:

…just because we are interested in an object that is being used as a reward doesn’t mean that the practice of using it as a reward is itself innocuous [harmless]. In fact, the more you want what has been dangled in front of you, the more you may come to dislike whatever you have to do to get it. (his emphasis)

Kohn discusses in depth the problem with extrinsic motivation. He concluded that intrinsic motivation is a much better indicator of long-term performance and that extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. He stated that “people’s interest in what they are doing typically declines when they are rewarded for doing it.” And Fredrick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory further supports the long-term effects of intrinsic motivation. Herzberg advocated job enrichment by introducing motivators such as achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility, and growth or advancement, which he considered factors intrinsic to the job. Herzberg reminds us that eliminating job dissatisfaction does not create job satisfaction. Job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are not opposites. The opposite of job satisfaction is no job satisfaction, and the opposite of job dissatisfaction is no job dissatisfaction.

Finally, by using Type M recognition over the long term, the leader assumes it will motivate the people that did not receive the reward to try harder the next time. This is a catastrophic mistake. As soon as someone does not succeed in obtaining the sought after Type M recognition, its motivational effects greatly diminishes or reverses. That is, what once was motivating actually becomes de-motivating. As Kohn points out, “the failure to receive an anticipated bonus is bound to have an adverse effect on subsequent performance.” It is this last point that is the crux of problem. Type M motivation works for only a short time. Don’t hang your hat on this one.

Type N Motivation

The next type of motivation is more long-term. Type N motivation does not attempt to overtly control someone’s behavior. Instead, it is ingrained within the work, and is intrinsic. By definition, intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual, rather than imposed upon by another person or outside mechanism. Examples include autonomy in work, accomplishment, challenge, or contribution. Unfortunately, most leaders/managers do not use this powerful form of motivation. From my experience and discussions with many leaders, the reasons are numerous:

  • It is difficult to develop;
  • It is difficult to administer;
  • It is hard to understand;
  • It is not directly measurable;
  • It is considered “soft” and less important;
  • It is different and therefore uncomfortable;
  • It takes too long to see results (short-term thinking);
  • It is not how they succeeded or were trained to lead; and
  • They just have not learned how to use this form of motivation


There are others, but this covers the majority. Remember, most managers have not been trained in these types of skills. Most managers got to where they are today by doing a great j-o-b, and then slammed into a leadership position. They may have attended a few seminars and read a few books, but skillful leadership constantly evolves. What once worked in the past is today no longer effective. Management creates the system of open and effective communication, autonomy, challenge, and feelings of accomplishment. It is this system that fuels Type N motivation. As we discussed previously, Type M motivation relies on extrinsic methods to motivate people. And since each individual responds differently to any one extrinsic “motivator”, it follows that managers can be more effective by creating an environment that will adapt to each person’s motivational needs. In other words, a workplace with open communication, challenge, and autonomy is more likely to instill intrinsic motivation without having to develop or understand the motivating factors of each separate individual. Now, management can focus on the only thing they really can control and should control – the environment, not the individual. As Alfie Kohn points out, any time we attempt to control someone’s behavior, the behavior eventually leads to the opposite of what we try to control.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for using Type M motivation. It truly does require a paradigm shift in one's attitude towards what motivates people. In attempting to persuade you, I would ask you to look at the results of using Type M motivation. Look at the variation in results you get from using this method. Sometimes it appears to work for a short time, and then suddenly it stops working, so you make adjustments. You continue making adjustments thinking things will change. The sustained change never comes. Also, I will guess that if you manage people, a great deal of your time is spent on dealing with “people problems.” There will always be people problems, but you shouldn’t feel as though this takes a lot of your time. One CEO asked me if I thought the majority of problems in business are people problems. I told him absolutely not. Most of the problems are the result of the system. He went on to explain that he caught one employee playing Gin on his computer during the middle of the workday. He wanted to know how this is not a “people problem.” Without knowing all the details of this CEO’s company, I explained to him that his example was a sign of a much bigger problem at his firm, especially if it is not isolated to just one individual. Lack of challenge, boredom, defiance, rebellion, or not being part of the “big picture”, are only a few things that come to mind that might cause someone to play computer games when they should be working.

As we have been discussing throughout this text, there are many factors contributing to the overall effectiveness (or lack thereof) of an organization. To say that most problems are caused by the poor attitudes of people, which is where many managers attribute their problems, is not only naïve, but too simplistic.

Putting Type N Motivation to Work

Not being used to using Type N motivation it may feel a bit awkward or uncomfortable at first. Only through continuous use will you overcome these feelings. For example, in trying to give some of your employees more autonomy in their work you might feel unsure of certain individual’s ability to make the right decisions. Expect them to make mistakes. Your role now is coach and teacher. If someone comes to you with a question, turn it around and ask them what they think they should do. If you don’t like the answer, you might ask more questions that will let them draw a more accurate conclusion. Even if they don’t, let them learn from their mistakes. Obviously if they are about to cause the loss of a customer or do something illegal you would strengthen your assistance. Even implementing this one form of Type N recognition sends a strong signal. Be sure there does not remain any obstacles in the system that conflict with successfully leveraging it. Approvals, rules and procedures are part of the system, the system that management controls. As Tom Peters states, “If there’s no deep-seated, psychological ownership, there [is] no ownership. Period.” Managing the operations of a company is complex, involving many different variables interacting differently at any given time. Therefore, using Type N motivation is your best chance for creating and sustaining a positive motivated working environment. Below is a list of some Type N motivation that you can use right away without spending a dime.

1. Develop challenging work assignments.

2. Give people as much choice in how they perform their work.

3. Work with people to help them achieve their future career and work goals.

4. Allow all employees to contribute new ideas (make sure they know their ideas are heard).

5. Allow all employees to participate in “important” projects.

6. Allow people to make mistakes. Concentrate on the learning that takes place.

7. Give people true ownership of their tasks. Let them experience those Maalox moments.

8. Offer unexpected compliments and recognition. (publicly and privately)

9. Bring people together on a team to solve an important problem. (Make sure they are properly trained in problem-solving and team dynamics)

10. Abolish individual incentives

11. Abolish performance appraisals. (At the very minimum, divorce pay increases from appraisals)

12. Allow employees to move laterally to experience a new job.

13. Alleviate monitoring mechanisms that put employees under surveillance.

14. Listen to employees more thoughtfully

15. Provide plenty of information and resources to support everyone.

16. Give people a chance to do what they like to do.

17. Remove unnecessary complexity from people’s work.

The above list is just a starting point. As you can see, Type N motivation is about support, opportunity, and environment. When your organization is ready to commit financial resources, there are plenty of other things that can be added to this list.


i-EDP Staffing conducted a study of hundreds of job candidates to find out what their motivation was in looking for another job. The first concern sited: In the last month, have I been recognized for good work? After conducting focus groups and one-on-one interviews for two years with workers from all walks of life, Tom Terez has identified the 22 Keys to a Meaningful Workplace (Adams Media). Money and less work aren't among those keys. Instead, employees want to feel challenged, respected and supported so they can be innovative and make decisions that will leave them feeling fulfilled. A few years ago the American Society for Quality conducted a study of thousands of workers to determine what motivated them. One item from the results: 19% said they wanted more recognition.

ii-Another category, one could argue, is a combination of monetary and non-monetary means. However, I submit that if you are using a combination of the two categories, the monetary means will ultimately be the method that individuals will focus on, reducing the effectiveness of non-monetary methods.

iii-Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: the Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (Boston, NY; Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), p. 83

iv-Ibid., p. 69

v-Fredrick Herzberg, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?”, Harvard Business Review, January-February 1968, pp. 53-62.

vi-Ibid., pg. 136. Kohn sites Halachmi and Holzer, 1987, p. 88.

vii-Ibid., p. 81