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The Ins and Outs of Motivation: How to Motivate Employees Without Rewards or Punishments

Motiving ourselves is challenging enough. So, how do we motivate others? Before we answer that question, it is important first to understand why they might lack motivation.

Start by asking questions to gauge their perspective on the task(s) at hand, like:

  • How do they feel about it?

  • What concerns might they have?

  • What resources might they need?

  • Do they feel overwhelmed or intimidated?

Starting with questions does two things.

  1. It shows the other person that you care and respect them as an individual contributor.

  2. It helps you identify and address any roadblocks, mental or tangible, that may get in the way of their performance and execution—increasing efficiency.

Unfortunately, it is not commonplace in our society to start with questions. Instead, we may resort to telling others what we need from them, expecting them to find a way to “make it happen” and “deal with it” if they don't like it. When we approach others in this way, we fail to address any concerns they may have about what is being assigned to them. Once the requirements for a task are communicated, we may assume that the person assigned is fully responsible and capable of figuring out the rest on their own.

This dog-eat-dog, every ‘man for themselves mentality stems from a long-held primal and archaic survival of the fittest attitude. Meaning employees are expected to figure it out and get it done.

Ironically, by not proactively helping others, we risk burdening ourselves. An example would be, assigning a task to someone without clear instructions, adequate resources, or not allowing them to voice their concerns or ask questions. Failure to do these things may lead to a less satisfactory outcome, and we may find ourselves responsible for picking up the slack or doing it ourselves.

Whoever you are speaking with, it is crucial to ensure that you both are on the same page. This includes understanding how they feel about what you have asked them to do, knowing that they may not like it or be happy about doing it.

Gauging how they feel and why they feel that way is the first step to alleviating any initial confusion or anxiety—which is a prerequisite to motivating others. You may discover that asking the right questions and providing them the opportunity to get clear on a task was all they needed to feel motivated.

The Downside of Using Extrinsic Motivators

(Rewards and Punishment)

While extrinsic motivators such as providing employees with an incentive like a gift card or catered lunch (reward) or threatening a write-up, demotion, or the retraction of a bonus (punishment) may result in the job getting done, they are not ideal forms of motivation. Rewards can be financially costly, and once offered, employees may come to expect them. Punishment can also be costly in a different sense, leading employees to resent their employer, and the fear of the threatened consequences can lead to increased error.

Lastly, extrinsic motivators can be counterproductive for those already motivated to do the work. Studies have shown that when people are offered a reward for things they already enjoy, it significantly diminishes their desire to perform that task.

How is this possible? Researchers believe that by offering rewards for an intrinsically rewarding task, you turn the task they found enjoyable into work or duty instead of pleasure.

How to motivate others without the use of material rewards or punishment:

If you want to avoid the drawbacks of extrinsic motivators, try using one of the following strategies that produce intrinsic motivation:

Make them feel involved and valued. It doesn't matter who you are speaking with, child or adult, people like to feel a part of something bigger than themselves and feel valuable.

Instead of automatically assigning them a project or task, present it by highlighting why you believe they would be the right person for the job based on their strengths and interests.

Let them know how much you value their support, insight, efforts, or time before, during, and after completion. There is nothing like feeling appreciated and valued to spark motivation.

Provide them with a balanced challenge. The sweet spot for motivation and a state of flow is when we are challenged just enough to feel that we have accomplished something. With too little of a challenge, the task is uninspiring, and with too much of a challenge, we feel overwhelmed and discouraged. This is when knowing your employee’s abilities and limits is extremely vital.

Give them autonomy, but don’t abandon them either. Just like a child who wants to do things on their own and also wants the assurance that someone is there if they need them, we too want that same ability to figure things out independently and know support is available if required.

No one likes a leader breathing down their back or telling them how something should be done. Part of what motivates us is being provided the opportunity to be creative and figure things out for ourselves. At the same time, we do not want to feel abandoned if we encounter a challenge or have a question.

Provide a creative atmosphere. A creative atmosphere does not require you to renovate your office to look like Google, with gardens, inviting rooms with futuristic aesthetics, and in-house chefs. However, you should create a space where others feel comfortable and inspired to work.

What this space looks and feels like will depend on individual personalities. For example, some individuals enjoy an open floor plan where they can work from a couch or sit at a table with their peers to collaborate. Others thrive in a quiet and secluded environment with minimal distractions. Allowing your employees to choose a space that works for them is critical for fostering motivation.

Ultimately, the best way to find out what motivates others is to ask them.

  • What inspires them?

  • What concerns do they have, if any?

  • How would they prefer to contribute?

  • What environment do they feel most comfortable working in?

  • What do they believe are their strengths?

Asking the right questions will always offer the greatest insight.


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