Why Motivation Fails


Dr. Sarveshwar Pande
Asst. Professor

A store manager of a large departmental shop in Sydney, Australia implemented an embarrassing (and happily short-lived) safety incentive: Employees caught violating safety procedure were immediately given a two-foot rubber chicken on a string to wear around their necks–in front of customers. To get rid of the chicken, an employee needed to catch another employee behaving "unsafely."

The practice quickly descended into a game of hot potato, with employees chasing one another around the store in search of the slightest violation to rid themselves of the safety chicken.

Many people don't feel motivated at work, and there's a very simple explanation for this: The motivational techniques used by most managers don't work. While few companies use rubber chickens (fortunately), most of the standard motivational tools like promotions, bonuses, employee of the month awards, pep-talks and free-pizza-nights are downright harmful to the drive, energy and commitment of employees. It only leaves them feeling manipulated, cynical and demotivated.

The result: According to one Gallup study 60-80% of workers are not engaged at work. They feel little or no loyalty, passion or motivation on the job. They're putting in the hours, but they're not doing a great job and they're certainly not happy at work! Millions of employees especially in India have to drag themselves out of bed 6-7 days a week and report to work although on weekends hardly ever anything happens.

As the illustration above shows, there are four different kinds of motivation. Only one of them works and unfortunately, many managers focus exclusively on the other three. A bit strange isn't it? How many kinds of motivations exist? There are actually four (4):

First, motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when you want to do something. Extrinsic motivation is when somebody else tries to make you do something.

Secondly, there is positive and negative motivation. Positive motivation is when you want to get something - motivation towards some goal. Negative motivation is away from something you want to avoid.

Combine these two dimensions and we get four kinds of motivation (don't you just love these four-quadrant models). Let's see why three of the quadrants are useless for creating motivation.

Extrinsic motivation doesn't work

In the laboratory, rats get Rice Krispies. In the classroom the top students get A's, and in the factory or office the best workers get raises. It's an article of faith for most of us that rewards promote better performance.

But a growing body of research suggests that this law is not nearly as ironclad as was once thought… If a reward — money, awards, praise, or winning a contest — comes to be seen as the reason one is engaging in an activity, that activity will be viewed as less enjoyable in its own right.

There are still serious drawbacks in the extrinsic motivation:

    1. It's not sustainable - As soon as you withdraw the punishment or reward, the motivation disappears.

    2. You get diminishing returns - If the punishment or rewards stay at the same levels, motivation slowly drops off. To get the same motivation next time requires a bigger reward.

    3. It hurts intrinsic motivation - Punishing or rewarding people for doing something removes their own innate desire to do it on their own. From now on you must punish/reward every time to get them to do it.

Some of the world's worst places to work in the world are the China and India.Despite the fact that in these countries, you have managers who have learnt the techniques to manage from Australia, USA, UK, they still go back to their countries and treat their employees as` human waste'. In India, Government run schools are have pathetic management who still hold on to archaic principles and children  of mainly the lower castes, rock-bottom socio-economic status are offered `free lunch' just to attend classes.

In one of Kohn's examples, children in a small town in Turkey  were given points for every books they checked out of the local library during the summer vacation. The points could be redeemed for a free pizza, in an attempt to encourage reading. The children in the program did indeed read more books than other children. But after the program ended, when reading no longer paid off in pizza, those children read far fewer books than others. Their own intrinsic desire to read books had been subsumed by the extrinsic reward, and when the pizza went away, so did the motivation.

Negative motivation doesn't work

Heart patients who've had double or quadruple bypass operations face a very simple choice: They must stop eating unhealthy food, smoking, drinking and working too much or they die. That has got to be the ultimate negative motivation and it carries the ultimate price for not doing it. So guess how many of them actuallly manage to change their lifestyle sustainably. Two years after the operation, how many of these heart patients have managed to stick to their new habits? Come on, take a guess. 10%. faced with the ultimate negative motivation, 9 out of 10 are still not able to make simple lifestyle changes. Which is why you see many patients coming in for their second or third heart operations. And which is also strong evidence that negative motivation does not work.

One doctor created a program where heart patients were instead taught to appreciate life (rather than fear death). They practiced yoga, meditated, got anti-stress counseling and got a healthy diet, all aimed at making them enjoy life more. The result: 2 years later, 70% of the patients maintained their new lifestyles.

When even the threat of death can't make people change their lifestyle sustainably, it becomes clear that motivation based on avoiding something is simply not as effective as motivation based on achieving something.

So what does work?

We currently act as if people are not inherently motivated, rather that they go to work each day and wait for someone else to light their fire. This belief is common among managers and employees alike…
It is right and human for managers to care about the motivation and morale of their people, it is just that they are not the cause of it.  So with extrinsic motivation out and negative motivation out, we're left with only one quadrant: Intrinsic positive.This completely changes the role of the manager as motivator. Rather than being the source of motivation (kind of a ludicrous idea in itself), the manager must help employees to find their own intrinsic motivation.

What enhances intrinsic motivation? The list includes:

  • Challenge - Being able to challenge yourself and accomplish new tasks.
  • Control - Having choice over what you do.
  • Cooperation - Being able to work with and help others.
  • Recognition - Getting meaningful, positive recognition for your work.

To these I would add:

  • Happiness at work - People who like their job and their workplace are much more likely to find intrinsic motivation.
  • Trust - When you trust the people you work with, intrinsic motivation is much easier.

So rather than trying to bribe people to want things using pizzas and promotions, managers should help their people to discover meaning and develop skills at work. What some managers don't realize is that people want to do good work. Create a happy, positive work environment and people are naturally motivated. Even better: They motivate themselves and each other.

And that surely beats the punishments and rewards.


Brown, N.K,(2006) " Why employees have to be self-motivated", Johnson Publishers

Carter, K.K, (2007) "Happines at work- The Hard Way", Silver Moon Publications, 6th edition

Dr. Sarveshwar Pande
Asst. Professor

Source: E-mail May 13, 2008


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