Motivational Mismatch

[Part One] The motivational mismatch between what science knows and what business does

In July 2009 Dan Pink, career analyst, gave a speech at TEDGlobal that has now had over 3 million views online. His topic was the surprising science of motivation within which Dan explains what he calls “one of the most robust findings in social science and also one of the most ignored”. It’s a subject that is rarely discussed within the workplace and yet is fundamental to the success and growth of all businesses.

Whether you are a one man band or run a workforce of hundreds of people, being able to stay motivated and to motivate is critical. With motivation comes increased productivity, enthusiasm, accelerate creativity, and improved concentration.

The traditional model of motivation has been based on extrinsic motivators such as financial rewards (bonuses and/or commission), grades (certificates/qualifications), and the threat of punishment. Research gathered over the last 40 years now blows this model out of the water as we discover more about the science of human motivation.

However, before we delve deeper into this subject there are a couple of things I need to point out. Extrinsic motivators work well when we are faced with purely mechanical tasks. If your job is to lay house bricks day in day out then tiered financial rewards are an excellent motivational tool. And the following discussion around intrinsic motivators do not work in the workplace if the employee does not feel their salary is fair. Those are the ground rules.

So, back to the surprising science of motivation. In June 2009 Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch and his colleagues from the, London School of Economics, carried out research in 51 businesses to study the impact of “paid for” performance motivators; “We find that financial incentive can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”

Preceding this LSE research was a study by D. Ariely, U. Gneezy, G. Lowenstein, & N. Mazar. Federal Reserver Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 05-11, July 2005: NY Times, 20 Nov. 2008. Research that was sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. They found;

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But once the task called for even the most rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

How can I keep myself and my staff motivated?

The golden question. If extrinsic motivators don’t work then how do I keep motivation high? The answer is by tapping into intrinsic motivators. There are a number of intrinsic motivators that you can use within the workplace, such as:

  • Challenge
  • Curiosity
  • Control
  • Fantasy
  • Competition
  • Cooperation
  • Recognition

Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail and how we might incorporate them into the workplace.


The task must excite the mind and the goals must be personally relevant and meaningful to the employee. Here are some top tips;

  • Make clear the links between the activity and outcomes valued by the employee.
  • Relate the task to a fantasy or imaginary context that the learner finds emotionally appealing.
  • Create a changing level of certainty. When you challenge someone by making it clear that the task today may be surrounded by different tools/context tomorrow it excites the learner and increases a desire to make the most of today.
  • Performance feedback. It is vital to give feedback during and after the challenge to keep motivation high. Whether the feedback is good or not so good it encourages the mind to think creatively on how to improve the current performance.
  • Self-esteem is another great tool when used to challenge the employee. “By meeting today’s goal, you’ll be able to…[insert something relevant and meaningful to that specific employee or group of employees]”


Curiosity is an often under used tool when trying to motivate yourself or someone else. When it is used it tends to be an unintentional outcome of the task at hand but it can also be highly effective when used intentionally;

  • Sensory curiosity – These are physical factors such as anomalies within the environment. Some companies have recognised that by providing an area that differs wildly in terms of lighting, sound, aesthetics, seating etc. that it increases motivation for those in that environment.
  • Cognitive curiosity – This is when you are motivated by the skills learned as they can be used within your own projects that you care deeply about. For example, let’s say you love playing football for your Sunday league team and your teammates have been talking about creating a new website. When the chance at work comes up to take a course on web design for a work project then you’re cognitive curiosity kicks in due to this personal project.
  • Optimal discrepancy – Curiosity is strongest when new information does not match what we currently know but is not so different to be irrelevant/impossible. In a business example this could be when the new project is presented in a way that highlights something that is seemingly impossible but research claims is achievable. This was the type of motivation used by Sony in creating the world’s first pocket transistor radio in 1957. Masaru Ibuka, co-founder of Sony, inspired his engineers to push beyond their expectations and instilled a spirit of innovation. At the time the idea of a pocket radio was deemed by many to be impossible but a few years prior to Sony’s release of the first pocket radio was the first workable all transistor radio created by German firm Intermetall in 1953. It was the step that Ibuka needed to spawn optimal discrepancy motivation.

Continue to Part Two.

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