Money can’t buy employee engagement

What, then, are the prime motivators for employees?

What, then, are the prime motivators for employees?

Remember the movie, “Jerry Maguire,” and the classic line, “Show me the money!”? That may have been a big motivator for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, but as I’ve said before, financial incentives are not the main motivators when it comes to employee engagement.

If you doubt that premise, check out a presentation made at this year’s renowned TED Conference by Dan Pink, a leading expert in the science of human motivation. It’s 18 minutes long and worth every second.

Using research and humor, Pink makes a compelling case for the premise that financial incentives usually have the opposite effect on engagement and performance from what you’d expect.

He starts with research dating back 60 years from an experiment created by Karl Duncker called “the candle problem.” Basically, people are challenged with figuring out how to attach a candle to the wall in way that would prevent wax from dripping on the table.

Duncker found that most people struggled due to what he called functional fixedness—a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.”

For example, if you need a paperweight, but you only have a hammer, you’ll have a hard time seeing it as a tool to hold down paper. Most people eventually figure it out, but it takes them a while to get it.

People aren’t always striving for the ‘prize’

Years later, another researcher, Sam Gluxberg, decided to see how a monetary incentive would affect people’s performance on the candle problem. He told one group that if they were among the fastest 25 percent, they would get $5. If they were the fastest in the entire group, they would receive $20. So naturally, the people offered the incentives completed it faster, right? Wrong! They took an average of 3 minutes longer than those who were simply asked to perform the task as quickly as possible, explaining simply that their results would be compared with the test standard.

As Pink points out, though, what these studies prove and what organizations do in response to that information are two different things. After decades of evidence from scientific studies like these, guess what. The main technique that’s used to boost performance today is still the usual array of bonuses and other financial incentives.

If money isn’t the answer, what is?

Pink says that intrinsic motivation will outstrip extrinsic motivation every time when it comes to boosting employee engagement. And the three main intrinsic motivators he’s identified are:

  • Autonomy. People want to have some sense of independence and control over their work.
  • Mastery. They are motivated by opportunities to improve and excel.
  • Purpose. They are driven by what matters to them deeply and personally.

Still don’t believe it? Check out Pink’s video, and then try your own experiment. Be prepared, though. You may have to change the way you think, or keep believing that extrinsic motivators are the keys to engagement and hope you’ll get lucky enough to beat the odds.

Les Landes is president of Landes & Associates, which focuses on aligning marketing communications and employee engagement. He is also the author of the Inside Out Blog and E-Column, which features tips and trends for creating alignment in organizations.

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