The Best Way to Motivate Your Team


PruittHealth, an organization that operates about 100 nursing homes and assisted living centers, had a problem. Its workers were hesitant about taking a Covid vaccine. Care workers tend to be low-paid and are often distrustful of government. Many had already suffered from the disease, costing them sick leave and even vacation days. They weren’t in a rush to be the first to take a vaccine that some felt hadn’t been sufficiently tested.

PruittHealth needed to be sure that its workers wouldn’t infect its elderly residents but requiring staff to obtain vaccines before being allowed to work might have led to resignations and deepened staff shortages. The company looked for a way to motivate its staff to take a vaccine that could save their lives and would protect residents.

It offered every “frontline” worker who received a vaccine a Waffle House gift card and entry to a company raffle with a surprise grand prize. The New York Times, which reported on the effort, didn’t indicate whether the initiative was successful or whether low-paid workers who were worried about the health effects of an injection needed more motivation than the promise of a free breakfast. But the approach isn’t very different to that used at companies large and small around the world. When you want staff to do something, you offer them a reward. A company that wants staff to put in extra hours promises overtime rates. A sales department that wants team members to close more deals offers prizes for the people who sell the most.

Offer a higher salary or dangle a bonus, and staff will put in extra hours and care more about the job. That’s the theory, at least. But does it work in practice? Are material rewards the best way to motivate a workforce, and if not, what is?

Turning Children Into Artists

One clue to motivation may lie with children. In 1982, Teresa Amabile of Brandeis University conducted a simple experiment. She gathered a group of 22 girls aged between 7 and 11, and invited them to one of two art parties in their apartment complex. At both parties, the girls were asked to create a design using paper and glue. At one of the parties, the children were told that when they had finished, three of the party’s organizers would judge the designs and award prizes to the creators of the best three pieces of work. At the other party, which acted as a control, the children were told that three prizes would be awarded after a raffle. When the children had completed their work, students graded the creations for their creativity, technical skill, and aesthetic appeal.

If the principle that has managers forcing sales staff to compete for monthly prizes held true then we should have seen the children promised a prize for their effort produce the best designs. They would have been motivated to put in more effort and taken more care in their work in the hope of receiving a reward. They would have competed.

That’s not what happened. In fact the children in the control group—the girls who knew that the prizes would be awarded at random—scored higher in creativity, spontaneity, and complexity than the girls who were competing for a prize.

Amabile concluded that the results were consistent with the proposition that intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity while extrinsic motivation is detrimental to that creativity.

To put it another way, offering a reward to motivate someone to perform a creative act is likely to reduce the creativity of their effort. The motivation has to be internal. The person performing the work will be most motivated when they’re performing it because they want to do it, not because they’re being paid to do it. A manager who wants to encourage sales staff to come up with new ways to pitch to potential customers should steer clear of motivating them with extra money.

A few years later, Amabile ran another experiment, this time using adults. She recruited 60 undergraduate students and told them that they would have to watch a videotape of someone in different situations, then describe their personality. Ten minutes into the experiment, the video stopped working. The experimenter then placed the volunteer into one of four different conditions. They could choose to take part in a second experiment, which involved creating paper collages, or they could be told they have to participate. They might also be offered a cash reward for continuing with the experiment or they might not. When the creativity of the work they produced was judged, Amabile found that creativity was highest when the volunteers weren’t given a choice about participation but also when they weren’t given a reward.

“The effect itself is clear,” stated Ambile. “Explicitly contracting to do an activity in order to obtain a reward leads to lower levels of creativity than contracting to do the activity for no reward, or simply being presented with the task, or being presented with the task and a subsequent reward.”

The implications, she continues, are intriguing. They mean that commissioned work may, in general, be less creative than work performed out of pure interest, and tying specific rewards to specific tasks chosen by workers will be less conducive to creativity than simply allowing a choice of activities without specific pay-offs attached to each task.

So a manager looking to motivate their staff to perform at their best, to think outside the box, and to dedicate their efforts to producing positive results should avoid bonuses and competitions. Instead, they should look to match work to staff members. They should identify the kind of work that each team member wants to do, and give them the freedom to perform those tasks in the way that they want.

Which is great in theory. In practice though, work isn’t always something that people want to do and there are always tasks that no one ever wants to perform. Amazon’s warehouse staff aren’t fetching goods and scanning barcodes because they enjoy the work. They’re doing it because they have to work, and that’s the work they could find.

So how do you motivate someone who’s doing work that they don’t want to do?

One option is to swap the carrot for the stick. Instead of offering a bonus for good performance, threaten punishment for underperformance. Whether that approach works though, depends on who you’re bawling out.

Know When to Push and When to Shove

In an experiment in 2010, researchers recruited 63 psychology students and gave them a questionnaire to measure their epistemic motivation—theirinnatedesire to understand a situation and build their knowledge. The questionnaire contained statements such as “It upsets me to go into a situation without knowing what I can expect from it” and “I become uncomfortable when the rules in a situation are not clear.” The participants had to rate their agreement with the statements on a scale of one to five.

The researchers then told them that they would work with another participant using a video link. One of the pair would have to generate as many ideas as they could for new ways to use a potato. The other would evaluate the ideas and provide feedback that would help in a second task. In fact, all the participants were assigned the role of idea generator but the evaluation came in one of two forms. For half the participants, the feedback came in a neutral tone. The other half received the feedback from an evaluator who frowned, clenched his fists, and looked stern.

The participants then listed as many alternative uses for a brick as they could, and a rater measured the creativity of their responses.

When the researchers compared the creativity scores in each part of the experiment, and correlated the changes to the scores the participants had provided in the questionnaire, they found that expressions of anger increased creativity among people with high epistemic motivation but decreased it among people with low epistemic motivation.

“Individuals with high epistemic motivation are more likely to consider the implications of others’ anger (e.g., suboptimal performance),” the researchers wrote. “Accordingly their creative performance benefited from angry feedback, as reflected in increased fluency, originality, and flexibility.”

In other words, it is possible to motivate someone to improve their work—even when that work requires thought and originality—by expressing anger and shouting at them. But only if the person you’re trying to motivate wants to learn. If they want to understand why they’re not performing the way that they should and they want to perform better, then a display of anger will show them that they need to change how they work. They’ll listen and adjust.

For people who just want to get through the day as best they can, however, an expression of anger is demotivating. They’ll continue in the same way as before but with even less enthusiasm. Those team members will perform better with an arm around the shoulder and a gentle talk—or reassignment to a job that better suits their skills.

The studies suggest that providing motivation can be more complex than many managers can deal with. Few managers are able to assign exactly the right tasks to the right people and determine which team members are likely to respond well to anger and which to encouragement. A manager who tends to shout tends to shout at everyone.

Teresa Amabile, though, has a solution that can simplify the challenge of motivating workers. Writing on the Berkeley University website, she notes that the single most important event for generating positive emotions, favorable perceptions of the work environment, and strong intrinsic motivation was progress in meaningful work: “a sense of moving forward on something that matters.”

When people feel that what they’re doing is important and they recognize that they’re getting it done, they feel motivated to keep going and to continue making effort.

The lesson for managers is straightforward, she adds. Leaders need to pay attention to what their staff need in order to make progress in their most important work. They need to tell them why the work they perform matters, and they need to provide the support they need to make progress. That support could come in the form of clear goals, the freedom to achieve those goals, resources and time, or encouragement to learn from failure.

The aim isn’t to provide external motivation but to build each team members’ intrinsic motivation. Reminding care workers that their skills keep the elderly healthy and happy is likely to be much more effective at motivating them to get vaccinated than giving them a gift token. The free breakfast can come afterwards.

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