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Neel Doshi, MBA and Lindsay McGregor, MBA
Neel Doshi, MBA and Lindsay McGregor, MBA

The Fallacy of Pavlov's Dog

New research shows the six reasons why we work.

Spectrum Blue / Shutterstock
Source: Spectrum Blue / Shutterstock

Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you’re familiar with the work of Ivan Pavlov: The Russian researcher who trained his dogs to salivate on command through classical conditioning methods. The takeaway is that if you train someone (or something) with rewards or punishment (e.g. food or electric shocks), they will eventually perform a given task (salivating) without prompting, or even subconsciously.

If we apply this experiment in the workplace, we may be inclined to believe that carrots and sticks work to motivate our employees. We may reward them with bonuses or threaten them with reprimanding language in order to get them to do their work better. However, decades of research show that the reasons we work determine how well we work. We expand on this concept in our book, Primed to Perform.

While it’s true that carrots and sticks can serve to compel employees to perform, this doesn’t serve to sustain high-performing cultures. Sure, if you threaten to fire your employee if they don’t produce a PowerPoint, they will likely produce the PowerPoint. However, because they are doing so out of emotional and economic pressure, their performance is likely to suffer. The same is true for rewards.

Let’s look at a counterintuitive example: German researchers wanted to see if they could make toddlers more generous, so they set up an experiment where a research assistant would drop something out of her reach. They then looked to see if the toddlers helped her retrieve the object and, lo and behold, most of the toddlers helped in the first round. In the next round, those toddlers who helped were either given a toy for helping or given no reward at all. While the group that continued to receive no praise helped the assistant 89% of the time, those who received a reward helped only 53% of the time. Carrots can be counterproductive.

Take another example—this time with grown-up humans. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, showed that even MIT students can succumb to worse performance when they are victims of economic pressure. Those who were offered high payouts performed 32% worse on simple addition problems than those given less of an economic incentive to perform well.

So what does compel high performance? Play, purpose, and potential. While people perform worse if they act out of economic pressure, emotional pressure, or inertia (what we call “indirect motives”), they perform better when they enjoy the work itself (play), when they can see the impact of their work (purpose), or they feel the work will help them attain personal goals (potential). Play, purpose, and potential are the direct motives, because they are in some way directly connected to the work itself. The combination of these motives is called total motivation (or “ToMo”). People with high ToMo are more creative, more ethical, and more resilient than those with low ToMo.

We see this in everyone from athletes to students. In one experiment, a researcher primed poets to be motivated by either indirect motives or direct motives. Those who were reminded of the direct reasons (e.g. “You enjoy the opportunity for self-expression”) were rated as 26% more creative than those reminded of indirect reasons (e.g. “You have heard of cases where one bestselling novel or collection of poems has made the author financially secure”). Creativity suffers when people’s motivations are not related to their work—when they are low ToMo.

Instead of training our employees (and spouses and children) to salivate on-command through indirect motives, we should be instilling them with the principles of total motivation. We should be making sure they have room to experiment in the work (play), see the impact of their work (purpose), and understand how their work can benefit them (potential). By assessing and understanding your employees’ motivation, you can begin to make sure they are aligned with your company’s mission and values. Only then can we expect them to work well for the right reasons—and not feel like a dog in a laboratory.

About the Author
Neel Doshi, MBA and Lindsay McGregor, MBA

Neel Doshi, MBA and Lindsay McGregor, MBA, are the co-authors of Primed to Perform, and the founders of Vega Factor, a company that helps organizations build high-performing, adaptive cultures.

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