Important for leaders to know: What really motivates people!  – a paradigm shift

Image: Motivation is not done using the stick and carrot method
For decades we have been told that the principles of effective motivation are being build on the simple carrot-and-stick model. Generations of leaders have followed these principles in trying to create motivation in people working for them. Even though, over the years, motivational principles contained more finesse they were still built on the old model.

More recently, experiments on motivational research revealed that the model of carrot and stick is no longer universally applicable to motivate people. At the times when this basic model was originally researched and developed the majority of the workforce was conducting mechanical tasks which did not require any cognitive skills. Nowadays, a much larger part of working people do tasks which require cognitive skills – even if sometimes on a rudimentary level only. The more recent research, as beautifully summarized by Daniel Pink (*), shows that people conducting  work which requires cognitive skills do worse  when using the carrot, i.e. high monetary incentives, than those which receive fewer incentives. When I read this for the first time I didn’t believe it. Only after diving in deeper it dawned on me that I had to change the way I look at motivation.

To be clear: for tasks which require only mechanical skills the old model of carrot-and-stick still works.

The more evolved tasks an ever increasing part of the workforce is conducting, you, as a leader, need to consider three key aspects to grow the motivation of the people involved.


The first aspect is the deeper meaning or purpose of the task. Research shows that it is essential for people conducting more evolved tasks to have a clear purpose   associated with their work. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (**) describes the effect as follows: “If a leader demonstrates that his purpose is noble and transcendent, that the work will enable organizational members to connect with something larger and more permanent than their material existence, people will give the best of themselves to the enterprise”.


The second aspect is an inherent opportunity in the work conducted to develop skills and move towards mastery.  This connects to a basic human driver of becoming better at something. Earlier research already showed that people need a good  level of challenge to be energized and willing to grow themselves .


The third element is autonomy in how to conduct the task.  This requires a high level of trust in the person doing the task as well as a high level of delegation to foster autonomy so that person really feels in charge of how things get done to achieve a certain outcome. It is important to mention here that this does not mean to leave them completely alone, but to meet them at a level of autonomy they can handle and provide support when it is needed.
Daniel Pink has summarised these findings in his book and visualized it in this animated video on YouTube.

Why should this be important now?

We are in the period where reviews are conducted and the annual targets are set. And here lies your opportunity as a leader, assuming you are interested to grow the motivation in the people working for you!

When you have the discussion with your people about the targets for the year, think about:

  • In which way you can connect these targets to a deeper meaning?
  • Is the challenge of the targets set high enough and yet achievable?
  • What level of autonomy are you prepared to give the person for achieving the targets?

You may hesitate to go that far. This may be more connected to your own insecurity rather than the other person’s ability. Ask yourself what kind of commitment and agreement you would need from the other person to be at ease with a new approach. Be audacious!

And if you need support implementing this new approach feel free to get in touch!


(*) Daniel Pink is the author of five provocative books — including three long-running New York Times bestsellers, A Whole New Mind, Drive, and To Sell is Human. Dan’s books have been translated into 34 languages and have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. The one on motivation has the title: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

(**)Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is noted for his work on the study of happiness and creativity, but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic. He is the author of many books and over 120 articles or book chapters.

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