How can you motivate your employees, clients, teammates, coworkers, and friends?
You need to inspire, exude passion, infect them with your own motivational force, and lead by example, right? This article is not about passive or indirect approaches. Rather, it’s about taking direct action and concrete principles to guide these actions. Since behavioral anthropology was the focal point of my academic studies, I will ground my guidelines in the current state of the art of research on human behavior.
The guidelines revolve around three central questions:
- Should the feedback you give be positive or negative?
- How can you set goals that motivate people to achieve them?
- What makes an incentive really effective?
How to give motivating feedback
Praise and criticism are two important tools to motivate others. Praise of achievements and strengths is motivating because it increases people’s confidence in their ability to pursue their goals. Criticism of errors and weaknesses indicates that more effort is needed and motivates because it encourages goal pursuit.
At the same time, both can have negative consequences. Have you ever praised a student for mediocre effort? Did this motivate her to perform better, or did it dull her progress and lower the perceived quality of your feedback? Would you find it helpful for a boxer in his first week of training to be blamed for his terrible technique? Would you find it supportive if a manager whom you’ve never met told you that your work ethic sucks?
Positive and negative feedback both have their time and place, yet both can be untimely and misplaced. The timing and context of feedback are critical.
Robert is the sales manager of a shoe store. One of his employees named Bill makes by far the least sales in the team. Robert calls Bill into his office to motivate him to do better. Should he praise Bill for what he does well, or criticize him for what he does badly? This depends on three factors:
- For how long has Bill been working as a shoe salesman?
- Does Robert have a close relationship with Bill?
- Is Bill committed to maximizing his sales?
If Bill has been at the job for a just few weeks, he doesn’t have enough experience enabling him to make positive use of negative feedback. Only over time, “with greater expertise, negative feedback becomes increasingly motivating” (Schroeder & Fishbash 2015, p. 126). Thus, positive feedback is better for motivating Bill, who is still a novice at the job.
If they have never interacted with each other before, Robert should place special emphasis on positive feedback. Bill certainly doesn’t want to be criticized by some distant stranger from the management whom he has never met. If Robert needs to point out some critical flaws in Bill, he should first deepen the relationship a bit; this will make his negative points more motivating, or less demotivating.
If Robert realizes during the meeting that Bill is passionately committed to increasing his sales, then some negative feedback will act as a motivating force. On the other hand, if Robert is uncertain or recognizes a lack of commitment to the sales goal, then he needs to strengthen Bill’s commitment by pointing out his accomplishments and praising what he has done well. Furthermore, Robert should consider…
How to set motivating goals
Setting a goal, especially a performance standard or a deadline, makes people work harder. A good, motivating goal is
- challenging (but not overly ambitious, which induces excessive risk-taking),
- S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-related),
- implemented in a when-then plan (e.g., when my alarm goes off at 5 am, I get up and exercise), and
- not competing against other goals for the achiever’s attention.
Studies have found further that motivation varies with the course of goal pursuit:
- Motivation increases as the goal target gets closer. Therefore, set as many little intermediate goals as possible.
- At the beginning, looking at the completed progress is motivating; toward the end, focus on lack of progress motivates better. Therefore, always demonstrate the smaller comparison standard to people.
- People tend to get lazy in the middle of goal pursuit. Therefore, reframe the middle as the beginning or end.
For example, if you want to achieve a specific sales goal in July, set smaller weekly goals instead. On Tuesday, remind your staff of the sales they’ve already accomplished. On Thursday, remind them of how many deals they have yet to close. On Wednesday, focus their attention on a daily goal. This example is overly simplified indeed but you get the picture.
Lastly, consider the instrumentality loss effect: The more goals a single means can achieve, the weaker the association between the mean and the goal. For example, if you need a new project assistant, hire a specific expert as a means to attain the project’s one main goal. Don’t hire someone who can fulfill two roles. Even if the latter person were equally competent in the main role, the mere fact that he’s a means for two goals weakens the goal-association and thus the motivation within the team.
Think about it this way: If you can get a pen that writes well and all you want to do is write, would you rather prefer a pen that writes just as well, costs the same, but can additionally be used as a laser pointer? Most people wouldn’t. That’s because the additional function dilutes the original means-goal (pen-writing) association. This might not be rational but who said that motivation is rational?
How to use motivating incentives
“If you eat all your vegetables, you’ll get a yummy cookie.” That’s an incentive used for motivation.
In line with the human desire for immediate gratification, researchers found that smaller immediate rewards are more compelling than larger delayed rewards. This suggests that one should successively sprinkle parts of the cookie on the vegetables while both are getting eaten up. I don’t have kids, so I haven’t field-tested this approach. Still I know so much that I can guarantee you that it won’t be effective to say, “If you eat all your vegetables, you’ll get a yummy cookie next month.”
Furthermore, if you want to motivate achievement or persistence, keep the incentives you give somewhat uncertain. An uncertain bonus of $10,000-$15,000, although less appealing, motivates a salesman to close a sale more than a set bonus of $15,000. The former is more exciting.
Even though extrinsic incentives are often necessary (e.g., you have to pay your employees a salary), too much extrinsic motivation can counteract people’s intrinsic drive, signal that a task is unpleasant do, or impede someone in the midst of goal pursuit.
Lastly, don’t forget that people also value intrinsic incentives (interestingly, more for themselves than for others, as studies have found). So instead of paying more and larger bonuses, consider how you could make the work more meaningful and the work environment more social and uplifting—especially when goal commitment is already high.
How do you motivate yourself and others? Tell me in the comments below!
Schroeder, J. & Fishbach, A. (2015). How to motivate yourself and others? Intended and unintended consequences. Research in Organizational Behavior 35, pp. 123-141.