Motivated employees do a better job and create a better working environment for co-workers, which leads to better results for a company. A crucial task for any manager is to create an environment that motivates employees. However, how does motivation work? What types of motivations are there? And perhaps more importantly, how do you motivate employees?

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

In the olden days of management the thinking was that employees are by nature lazy and that you should keep tight control and could only motivate them to do decent work by giving them a reward for good work (‘offer a carrot’) and punishing them for bad behavior (’hit them with a stick’).

However, in his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us Daniel Pink describes why old-school motivation methods like carrots & sticks don’t work anymore in the modern office setting. In an office environment when dealing with knowledge workers, businesses and especially managers should use different methods to motivate employees.

If you’re too busy reading the whole book, then RSA has summarised the key points of Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us in a nicely animated video. Watch the video below.


Why control, rewards, and punishment don’t motivate

Punishment for bad job lego

When it comes to motivation, you can distinguish two types of work:

  1. Routine, manual, monotone tasks that require little to no cognitive skills
  2. Cognitive tasks like flexible problem-solving or conceptual understanding

In traditional styles of management, labor was managed by a simple guiding principle: control people to make them comply by offering a reward for desired behavior (‘offer them a carrot’) and punishing unwanted behavior (‘hit them with a stick’). For routine, manual, monotone tasks with predictable outcomes that require little to no cognitive skills the rewards and punishment still work reasonably well.

The reason rewards work for routine tasks is that these kinds of jobs are so boring and annoying that you need to pay people to do them; otherwise, people wouldn’t do it by themselves. In other words, an intrinsic motivation to do these kinds of tasks is missing, that’s why you need to give an extrinsic motivation, i.e., a reward. Hence, offering rewards leads to better results, or at a bare minimum that the job gets done at all.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation

Happy kitten motivated

This is where the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation comes into play. Intrinsically motivated people are more concerned with the satisfaction a particular activity will bring on its own – without the need for a reward. Extrinsically motivated people are only motivated when you offer them an (external) reward.

Don’t get me wrong; people still want to be paid a decent salary, even intrinsically motivated people. (If you don’t believe me then stop paying your employees and see what happens.) The first step is to make sure the baseline is covered, i.e., that the salary is of an adequate amount. Once the salary hits the baseline, money itself is not the primary motivator anymore for intrinsically motivated people.

There are several advantages to intrinsic motivation compared to extrinsic. First of all, intrinsic motivation is not a born skill. It can be crafted by creating the right working environment. Secondly, intrinsically motivated outperform extrinsically motivated people in the long run. Once you cut the reward, you also cut the motivation of extrinsically motivated people. Intrinsically motivated people on the other keep going. Finally, intrinsic motivation leads to better mental and physical well-being.

Rewards aren’t the main motivator for intrinsically motivated people

Running for money

Using control, rewards, and punishment may work for routine tasks. However, cognitive tasks don’t work as well with the rewards and punishment model for motivation.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but there are several disadvantages when you use rewards and punishment for cognitive, non-routine conceptual tasks. When you offer an ‘if-then’ reward, it oddly enough gives you less of what you want. Offering an incentive lowers intrinsic motivation, diminishes performance, kills creativity, and also gets rid of good behavior.

On top of giving you less of the behavior you want, offering incentives also gives you more of the behavior you do NOT want. Incentives, for example, encourages unethical behavior and leads to short-term thinking. The fraud on a massive scale inspired by corporate greed of companies like Enron has proven what incentives can lead to in the worst case scenario.

So, how do you motivate knowledge workers whose main tasks require cognitive skills? Alternatively, how do you create a work environment that motivates people on an intrinsic level?

According to Daniel Pink, three factors motivate people more than just money, and that leads to better performance and personal satisfaction:

  1. Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery: To drive get better at something that matters to us
  3. Purpose: The willingness to contribute to a cause bigger than ourselves

Autonomy motivates employees

freedom at work laptop on beach

People have a natural desire to be autonomous and decide their own fate and course of action. Give people autonomy to determine which tasks they want to do, how they want to do it, with whom they want to do it with, and when they want to do it, and you can easily increase their motivation.

Giving people this kind of freedom goes against traditional management thinking where the credo has been for the manager to be in complete control and decide who does what, how, when and with whom. That’s the struggle some companies face when they manage modern knowledge workers in an old-fashioned management style.

When you give people the freedom to be in charge of their own work they’ll be more motivated. This doesn’t just apply to immediate tasks at hand. It starts with deciding which tasks need to be done at all. People don’t like being told what to do. That’s why it’s essential to involve people also when goals are set.

Forcing goals onto people which they had no involvement with lowers their motivation. Involve people from the start and get their input when a goal is set. Better yet, make them part of the goal-setting process and let them make a plan themselves to reach those goals.

People cherish freedom, so give them sufficient autonomy to do their job.

Getting better at a job motivates

mastery at job playing guitar hobby

People have the drive to get better at a task they enjoy to do. Doing work that matters to you personally keeps you engaged, which motivates and leads to better results.

Work environments that enable us to get better at tasks we enjoy to do are more motivating. Compare this to work you don’t care for or to speak with the famous word of Peter Gibbons “It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that I don’t care.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (good luck trying to say that in one go) is a researcher who recognized the concept of flow, a highly focused mental state. Put plainly; flow is the optimal mental state to work. Companies that create a flow-friendly work environment that enables people to get better at their work can increase productivity and motivation and thus job satisfaction.

There are two tactics a company can use to get employees in a state of flow.

The first tactic is what Daniel Pink calls ‘Goldilocks tasks.’ Knowledge workers have a desire for an intellectual challenge. Tasks should offer a challenge, but shouldn’t be so super difficult that it’s impossible to do. The tasks also shouldn’t be too simple, because then employees might get bored. Organizations should strive to provide intellectual challenges that are in the sweet spot of ’not too hard, not too easy.’

The second tactic organizations can use to move employees towards a state of flow is to turn work into play. In other words, add an element of fun to tasks.

People seek purpose

On a higher level, we all seek a purpose in our life, a way to give meaning to our life. This could also be a worthwhile cause that is bigger than our own life, which we can be part of. Finding a purpose is personal.

Finding a purpose person standing beneath the stars

In the past organizations were solely concerned with earning money and not about more human motives like purpose. However, some organizations realize that purpose is an essential factor for employees. Thus, when organizations take the purpose motive of its employees into account and make it part of their policies, it increases employee motivation.


Motivated people perform better than demotivated people. As a manager find out how you can motivate your team. How can you help them be more autonomous, get better at their job, and find their purpose? Start treating people like people and don’t treat them like horses and offer them a carrot (or a stick).

Images via Pixabay and 123RF.