The Problem With Motivation

At every parenting seminar that I lead someone will ask, in a fretful voice, “Is it ok if I bribe my kids?” There is always some level of hesitation; the parents feel that, even though it sometimes seems to work, something is not quite right. And yet they think it can’t be all bad. Can it?


My answer is always the same - you may get want you want in the short term, but everyone will lose out in the long term. It’s the problem with motivation.

It never fails - the next question, after I give the reason why, is, “Well, then, how do I motivate my kids?”

It is basically the same question that I got as a guest speaker in a college class on project management: “How do I motivate my coworkers when they are not working up to expectations?”

You can’t. It’s the problem with motivation.

Now you may disagree, saying that you’ve seen motivation work. Your kid didn’t want to get ready for school when you wanted them to so you offered a treat if they did, and it worked. Your staff seems to be struggling to get something done so you tell them that if they finish the project they can have a half day off on Friday. And they find a new level of energy.

But we need to ask what is really going on.

When we say “motivation” we usually mean “how do I manipulate others to get the response that I want?” Bribery really is the better word for what we are trying to accomplish.

When you hold the treat out in front of the kid, your spouse, your coworkers, what you really want is to get the action or behavior in that moment. You are asking them to do a task to gain the incentive, instead of incentivizing the task. The focus has shifted.

In other words, you are externalizing what should be internal motivation. But since you are not getting the results you want in the moment by hoping that the person will want to do it on their own, you reason that you need to sweeten the deal so that they will be motivated by the extra payouts.

Often this seems to work so you may be wondering what the problem is. But what happens when they say no to the “carrot” you are dangling in front of them? You have to start thinking about how much you want to sacrifice to get the behavior that you want rather than thinking about the other person and what they may want. Now the kid/spouse/coworker has turned into a cost rather than a valuable asset, ultimately leading down the path to frustration and resentment.

But let’s say that leading someone around with a "carrot” works - if that is what you truly want. The problem again is that it won’t take long before the carrot is no longer as valuable and you then have to change it to a Twinkie; meanwhile, the task itself becomes more and more distasteful compared to the sweet that it was associated with it. You are basically saying that the incentive is worth more than the task itself. I’m having to do “this” to get “that”; it must mean the “this” isn’t worth as much as the “that”.

What happens to the value of the task when the “carrot” doesn’t taste so good anymore?

Let me put it another way. You ask your kids to do chores around the house, but they don’t want to. So you say that you’ll give them an allowance in exchange for chores. What you are basically saying is that chores are something extra that have a money value and the money that you are offering is worth more than the chore itself - please do it because it is a good economic deal. How long do you think it will take before they don’t want the money one week? You’ve given them the option and they turn it down. Don’t get resentful - that is the deal that you made. Or maybe now they want to renegotiate the deal because it doesn’t seem to favor them. What has been long lost is the value of doing work around the house as a family.

Let’s go back to the coworker example. What happens the next time the team is faced with a difficult task? No longer do they want to do the hard work for the intrinsic value of accomplishing something special - it now has a price tag associated with benefits.

From the book Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz (p. 181):

There are two problems with incentives. First, they are often too blunt an instrument to get us what we need. In situations that call for scalpels, incentives are sledgehammers. Second, when incentives are introduced into a situation, they can undermine other, better motives to do the right thing. Different kinds of motives can compete, and financial or other material incentives often win the competition. The result… is that such financial incentives can lead to demoralization - in two senses. First, they take the moral dimension out of our practices; second, they risk demoralizing the practitioners themselves.

In the meantime, what we have really done is demotivate the very thing that we wanted in the first place - for the person to be motivated to do it on their own. This has been documented in multiple books, but we just can’t seem to help ourselves and keep trying it over and over again.

We are short term problem solvers - it’s where the pain is most acute.

Matthew B. Crawford, in the book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, describes a study where trying to use incentives actually made the original activity even less valuable rather than more:

Children who enjoy drawing were given marker pens and allowed to go at it. Some were rewarded for drawing - they were given a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon, and told ahead of time about this arrangement, whereas for others the issue of rewards was never raised. Weeks later, those who had been rewarded took less interest in drawing, and their drawings were judged to be lower in quality, whereas those who had not been rewarded continued to enjoy the activity and produced higher-quality drawings. The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this has the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it. That is, an external reward can affect one's interpretation of one's own motivation, an interpretation that comes to be self-fulfilling.”

There are always unintended consequences. One of the unintended consequences of external rewards is that, once you head down that path, is that you will always be in search of a better “carrot” rather than helping people motivate themselves to do the original work.

Alfie Kohn wrote the seminal book around this subject - Punished by Rewards:

“What rewards and punishments do is induce compliance, and this they do very well indeed. If your objective is to get people to obey an order, to show up on time and do what they’re told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless.”

The truth of the matter is that the motivation question is about manipulating others to make the decision we want. That person becomes a means to an end - I need my kid to behave at the restaurant, I want my partner to be ok with my spending decision, I need my coworkers to embrace the latest change.

Maybe motivation isn’t what we should be focusing on anyway.

The fulcrum is that initial decision point.

Whenever you are working with other people, no matter their age, there is always the option for the other person to make a decision that you do not like. The child may not want to go shopping now, the partner might not like your choice, the coworkers are not sure if that is the task they want to work on. Do you focus on the other person and the decision they make, or do you try to offer an incentive to get what you want? The latter offers short-term compliance with long-term consequences while the former offers short-term disappointment but the development of long-term trust by honoring their decision.

This is what I am suggesting is the alternative: focus on the decision or task, explaining it as best you can. Describe what it entails, the pros and cons, the upsides and consequences. Be honest - fudging about it is a sure way to demotivate someone the next time around.

And here is the hard part - shut up and listen.

Let the other person decide based on the merits of the task, regardless of what you want. People can always say no, and it is hard not to make their choice personal.

But, you may be thinking, what if that task still needs to get done? Am I really making things better by offering them a choice? For example, it’s not a choice that my kid goes to school or if that project at work needs to get done.

The choice for the child is not if they have to go to school, but choosing the consequences for not being ready by the time the bus arrives. My teen-age son has to walk to school; if he is late then he gets a tardy, which carries its own consequences. It is his decision and responsibility to get to school on time, not mine.

If you describe well the expectations of a job and the quality expected (which is not often done well), and then provide the staff the tools to get the work done their way, they can then decide if that is the job that they want. If it isn’t then find staff who do want the job or perhaps the job itself needs to be revised.

Does this mean that we can’t offer a reward, ever? No, but if the reward is offered as an incentive, then it is really just a “carrot” dangling in front of someone to distract them from the task at hand. Offer the reward after the fact as a surprise to show appreciation for work well done.

Motivation is a fickle thing. It comes and goes, despite the best efforts of books, speakers, and pleas from loved ones. There are many times I don’t want to do something that I know I should. The only motivation that I should count on is how I motivate myself. It’s the problem with motivation.