We continue to revisit the issue of motivation and specifically, the “carrot and stick” aspect.  New research seems to indicate that brain chemicals may control behavior and for people to learn and adapt in the world; therefore, both punishment and reward may be necessary. This conclusion would certainly run counter to the trend towards positive motivation without extrinsic reward or punishment.

Can you influence or even change a person’s behavior through conditioning? The real question is, which route would you choose—positive or negative? Most people are taught to refrain from engaging in a certain behavior by being given punishments that create negative feelings. This helps maintain discipline at home, school and even organizations. However, it has long been debated as to which one works better on behavior.

Are there genetic and brain chemistry factors that could influence our perspective on this issue?

Hanneke den Ouden and Roshan Cools and their colleagues from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen and New York University have published their research in the journal Neuron. They concluded brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine related genes influence how we base our choices on past punishments or rewards. This influence depends on which gene variant you inherited from your parents. Den Ouden explains: “We used a simple computer game to test the genetic influence of the genes DAT1 and SERT, as these genes influence dopamine and serotonin. We discovered that the dopamine gene affects how we learn from the long-term consequences of our choices, while the serotonin gene affects our choices in the short term.”

Den Ouden goes on to say "Different players use different strategies. It all depends on their genetic material. People's tendency to change their choice immediately after receiving a punishment depends on which serotonin gene variant they inherited from their parents. The dopamine gene variant, on the other hand, exerts influence on whether people can stop themselves making the choice that was previously rewarded, but no longer is.”

What implications does this have on the issue of employee motivation in the workplace?

Motivating people to do their best work, consistently, has been an enduring challenge for executives and managers. Even understanding what constitutes human motivation  has been a centuries old puzzle, addressed as far back as Aristotle.

When Frederick Herzberg researched the sources of employee motivation during the l950s and l960s, he discovered a dichotomy that still intrigues and baffles managers: The things that make people satisfied and motivated on the job are different in kind from the things that make them dissatisfied. Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work, and you'll hear them talk about insufficient pay or an uncomfortable work environment, or "stupid" regulations and policies that are restraining or the lack of job flexibility and freedom. So environmental factors can be demotivating, but even if managed brilliantly, fixing these factors won't motivate people to work harder or smarter.

It turns out that people are motivated by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility—intrinsic factors. People have a deep-seated need for growth and achievement. Herzberg's work influenced a generation of scholars and researchers—but never seemed to make an impact on managers in the workplace, where the focus on motivation remained the "carrot-and-stick" approach, or external motivators.

What do we mean by motivation? It's been defined as a predisposition to behave in a purposeful manner to achieve specific, unmet needs and the will to achieve, and the inner force that drives individuals to accomplish personal and organizational goals. And why do we need motivated employees? The answer is survival. Motivated employees are needed in our rapidly changing workplaces, and to be effective, managers need to understand that and do something about it.

A review of the research literature by James R. Lindner at Ohio State University concluded that employee motivation was driven more by factors such as interesting work than financial compensation. John Baldoni, author of Great Motivation Secrets of Great Leaders, concluded that motivation comes from wanting to do something of one's own free will, and that motivation is simply leadership behavior—wanting to do what is right for people and the organization.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink, describes what he says is "the surprising truth" about what motivates us. Pink concludes that extrinsic motivators work only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances; rewards often destroy creativity and employee performance; and the secret to high performance isn’t reward and punishment but that unseen intrinsic drive—the drive to do something  because it is meaningful. Pink says that true motivation boils down to three elements: Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the desire to continually improve at something that matters to us, and purpose, the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves. Pink, joining a chorus of many others, warns that the traditional "command-and-control" management methods in which organizations use money as a contingent reward for a task, are not only ineffective as motivators, but are actually harmful.

Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee writing in the Harvard Business Review, describe a new model of employee motivation. They outline the four fundamental emotional drives that underlie motivation as: The drive to acquire (the acquisition of scarce material things, including financial compensation, to feel better); the drive to bond (developing strong bonds of love, caring and belonging); the drive to comprehend (to make sense of our world so we can take the right actions); and the drive to defend (defending our property, ourselves and our accomplishments).

Norhria and associates argue that managers who try to increase motivation must satisfy all of these four drives. Best practice companies have initiated reward systems based on performance. They have addressed the bond drive by developing a corporate culture based on friendship,  mutual reliance, collaboration and sharing; addressed the drive of comprehend by instituting job design system where jobs are designed for specific roles, and they have attempted to create jobs are meaningful and foster a sense of contribution to the organization. And finally to address the defend drive, best practice companies restructure their leadership approaches to increase transparency of all processes, ensure fairness throughout the organization and build trust and openness with everyone.

The carrot-and-stick approach worked well for typical tasks of the early 20th century —routine, unchallenging and highly controlled. For these tasks, where the process is straightforward and lateral thinking is not required, rewards can provide a small motivational boost without any harmful side effects. But jobs in the 21st century have changed dramatically. They have become more complex, more interesting and more self-directed, and this is where the carrot-and-stick approach has become unstuck. In summary, the implications for managers in organizations are significant. Leaders today must be not just cognizant of the latest research on motivation, but take action to make those organizational and relationship changes to take advantage of this research. And care must be taken to simply conclude that our motivation is blindly driven by brain chemicals.

You are reading

Wired for Success

Why Solitude Is Good and Loneliness Is Bad

Loneliness is becoming an epidemic but the value of solitude is unappreciated.

Myths and Truths About Successful CEOs

How CEO stereotypes persist despite contrary evidence

The Rebirth of Macho:Toxic Masculinity and Authoritarianism

How the convergence of these three trends threaten American democracy