Mastering Motivation Pays Off

Modern medicine is an amazing achievement. It cures once-fatal diseases, removes once-inoperable tumors, prevents once-overwhelming epidemics.


Modern medicine is an amazing achievement. It cures once-fatal diseases, removes once-inoperable tumors, prevents once-overwhelming epidemics. Millions around the world are now thinking about life in their 90’s, people whose grandparents were grateful to reach 60. But modern medicine, like any complex enterprise made up of variable, fallible human beings, does have its flaws. Case in point: Modern medicine doesn’t wash its hands enough. Every year, according to the World Health Organization, hundreds of thousands of hospital patients die of infections because doctors and nurses didn’t practice proper “hand hygiene.”

When you think about it, that’s amazing. All doctors and nurses know that a little soap and water, or alcohol gel, will stop the spread of germs. Even schoolchildren know it. Yet a recent 168-nation study, published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, found healthcare workers followed WHO-recommended hand-washing procedures only half the time.

The hand-washing conundrum arises from a problem all of us encounter, in our organizations and—let’s face it—in our own psyches. It’s not a failure of knowledge. It’s not a matter of active malice or confused thinking. It’s a problem of people not putting in “discretionary effort,” which is “going above and beyond in terms of performance, or integrity or living the values of the organization,” said Ben Hubbard, European head of engagement at Korn Ferry’s Hay Group division. In other words, it is a problem of motivation.

All organizations want employees who will “put in the effort and do the right thing,” said Hubbard, but, he noted, motivation and engagement have become more important with the macroeconomic changes of the past 20 years. For one thing, younger employees expect to be fulfilled and valued at work. If they aren’t motivated, they will leave, or at least complain loudly. Second, disaffected employees now have a social-media megaphone to let the whole world know things aren’t right within an organization. This is true of customers too, who now expect to give feedback and exchange reviews in real time. The new normal is a customer who expects a level of service that only a motivated employee can give.

And, of course, sometimes motivation is about more than the bottom line. Hay Group has done research with Britain’s National Health Service, Hubbard said, “looking at the organizational climate, measuring the health of the team and its levels of engagement. We’ve seen better mortality rates where management was creating the right kind of environment.”

The good news is that it’s possible to “quantify motivation, measure it and systematically improve it,” as Hubbard put it. (The vast majority of Fortune 1000 companies do so, he noted.) But how, exactly, does motivation work?

In most modern models, motivation arises when some basic irreducible needs interact with our environment. In some theories, these basic needs are held to be common to everyone. The psychologist Abraham Maslow, for example, proposed a hierarchy of needs. Satisfying the basic ones, like the need for food and safety, leaves a person able to pursue “higher” ones, like love and the esteem of others. At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is “self-actualization”—the desire to become “everything that one is capable of becoming.”

In the more recent motivational theory of Harvard Business School’s Nitin Nohria and the late Paul R. Lawrence, advanced in their 2002 book, “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices,” people have only four basic drives—to acquire (which would orient them toward rewards like money and all that it can buy); to bond (not only in personal relationships but in belonging to an organization); to comprehend (to find the explanations that show us the world makes sense, and that what we are doing in it is meaningful); and to defend (to combat threats to ourselves, our people, ideas, values and so on). To get the most motivated people, they argue, organizations must satisfy all these needs, because they are present in different proportions, in all people.

Other models, though, suggest that people aren’t that similar, and that not all people are motivated in the same way. In the 1950’s, the renowned psychologist David McClelland became intrigued by the way people differed in their motives, and by the consequences these differences had for organizations and societies. McClelland postulated that there are only three basic needs motivating people: achievement (accomplishment, mastery of skills, winning competitions); power (influence over other people); and affiliation (a sense of belonging and good relations with others).

As might be expected, he proposed that workers motivated mostly by achievement did best in middle-management and technical work. Leaders were those whose greatest need was for power. More provocatively, McClelland argued that organizations and societies that abounded in achievement-needing people would have greater economic success. Achievement-oriented people, looking for new challenges, would out-innovate and out-explore groups whose members were more concerned with power or relationships.

McClelland’s model aimed to compare nations. But it might help explain different outcomes within a nation. Certainly in today’s knowledge economy, in which innovation and disruption are sacred values, it seems that the achievement-oriented have triumphed. In an economy where those with this motive have it all, it’s reasonable to ask if our preference for this motivator over others might not be making the problem of inequality worse.

All these theories of motivation, despite their differences, share the notion that motives are rooted within us. Whether you’re doing a good job for its own sake, or for the reward you’ll get later, the assumption is that the desire to act comes from within—from those deep, unchanging needs rooted deep in your psyche.

But this assumption creates something of a mystery for those who would master motivation: If our needs are constant, why do our motivations feel so fickle? Why do we tell ourselves we’ll do a good job today, but then find ourselves slacking off? Why do we eat what we’ve resolved not to, or waver in pursuit of a goal we’ve told ourselves means the world?

Behavioral psychologists say the answer lies in the tricks the human mind plays on itself, as it seeks to avoid overtaxing its limited attention. Instead of facing reality and thinking through our problems, they say, we tend to rely on rough rules of thumb and comfortable habits. One of these, for example, is “future discounting,” which is the strong tendency to see the present as more important than the future. Thanks to this mental habit, most people find it hard to resist spending for today and equally hard to put money aside for retirement. We’re also exquisitely sensitive to how others are doing compared to us, and what they think. Which can cause us to buy things we don’t need and conform to practices we don’t necessarily condone.

To behavioral economists, our “unofficial” motives often work at cross-purposes with the ones we consciously choose to pay attention to. In their book “Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation & Deception,” the economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller contend that many of our motivations come from a sort of “monkey on the shoulder” part of the psyche, which makes lazy, impulsive choices.

In order to fight off the monkey, behaviorists have come up with a host of new techniques and gadgets to help people stay motivated. Most middle-class people nowadays have seen some of these tools, and many own one or two. It might be a step-counting Fitbit, which gives you hard data that you can’t deny, making it difficult to slack off. It might be a website like, where you publicly commit to a goal like quitting tobacco or losing weight, counting on the dread of social shame to keep you to your goal (you can also pledge to give money to a cause you hate should you miss the goal, to make the dread even sharper). Today’s worker can also have an “accountability partner” to report to. Or find that her company is using gamification to make employees want to go the extra mile. She might also use a smartphone app that tracks her sleep and a HAPIfork, which vibrates if she eats too quickly. If she works in Google’s Chrome browser, she can use an add-on that scans her email for words like “sorry” and “I think,” underlining them in red—they’re supposedly the kind of phrases that make email sound less authoritative.

Many people, at work and in their private lives, have happily accepted these motivational prosthetics, assuming that in an overtasked world, we all need as much help as we can get. For example, though people generally disapprove of taking drugs to improve one’s focus, memory or thinking skills, they go much easier on the concept of taking pills for motivation, according to a survey published in 2015 in the American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience. (This is not a theoretical question. As the public-health researcher Torben Kjærsgaard, of Denmark’s Aarhus University, has pointed out, drugs, like Provigil or Adderall, that some take to stay sharp actually have more powerful and consistent effects on motivation than on memory and thinking.)

On the front lines, working with companies to improve their engagement metrics, Hay Group’s Hubbard sees apps, gamification, social-media incentives, gadgets and other new techniques as useful aids. Older workers may not approve or understand, he said, but younger workers are fine with it.

Others, though, have their doubts about these new types of motivational aid. After all, doing a first-class job because you want to is a profoundly different experience than doing that job because you don’t want to look bad to friends. If people feel their motivation comes from outside themselves—from game badges, social media and the prods and pokes of apps and gizmos—how can they know it’s their own? If you need that much help to want to do something, then can you be sure that you really want to do it?

After all, as Hubbard noted, creating the right kind of environment for motivated employees includes addressing their need for a sense of meaning and empowerment. It’s important to listen to workers’ feedback and commit to responding, he said, and avoid “that paternalistic dynamic where the motivating comes down from above.”

Moreover, when gadgets and websites support our goals, they tend to be the goals that gadgets and websites are best at supporting. That means what is easily quantified and tracked (like money earned or contacts acquired) has priority over goals that matter as much or more to engagement and the bottom line, like the quality of relationships or the feeling that work is meaningful. If, as the psychologist McClelland believed, achievement motivation can foster inequality, perhaps we should be concerned that it’s the easiest desire to engineer with behavioral techniques.

Gamification, wearable monitors, apps and nudges aren’t going away, of course. As Hubbard noted, for younger workers they are simply a part of life. But technology will never completely replace a nuanced understanding of what makes each worker want to make that crucial extra effort.

Motivation is an elusive quarry—easy to sense but hard to pin down as it changes shape from organization to organization, place to place, person to person and even hour to hour. (This is why there are so many more gym memberships in circulation than gym members showing up to sweat.) Getting 100 percent of your people—or yourself—to want to meet high standards is probably impossible.

But, then, Hubbard noted, you don’t need 100 percent. “In an organization, you might have 33 percent of your people highly motivated, 33 percent closer to average and 33 percent pulling at the wrong end of the rope,” he said. That’s plenty of material to work with: turning around the wrong-end pullers, motivating the average Joes and Janes and getting even better work out of the already enthusiastic. Companies that do it will have an advantage over those that do not.

And even attention to the bottom third “shouldn’t be about weeding out,” Hubbard said. “Most of those people are not being managed well. The organization is failing to channel their emotional needs in a way that helps them do their best. And when it addresses that, and improves, then it will save quite a bit of money.”

And, perhaps, a few lives as well.

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