“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.” 

…Or maybe he won’t – maybe the mouse doesn’t like milk, or maybe he didn’t even want a cookie in the first place… maybe he would prefer cake, or maybe he’s watching his figure and would like an apple instead. Perhaps he just needed a midnight snack and will be on his way after the cookie, never sticking around to ask for the milk. How are we supposed to know what the mouse wants? These are the questions that circle around in my mind as I needlessly deconstruct a children’s book as a full-grown adult. And while I should probably cut the author some slack –and maybe get a hobby– this argument does hold some weight as it pertains to the work-world today. We assume that if we give a person “X” they will respond with “Y” – as if human behavior is a perfectly robotic, universal equation. However, if this equation really worked the way we think it does, then how do we account for all the times when we try to “motivate” people by giving them a raise, time off, a pizza party, a gift card… and yet, improved performance does not follow? Why do some people respond to praise, but others don’t? Why do employees quit even though they receive top-notch benefits? The answers to these questions are complicated and contingent on many different variables, but much of it lies in the basics of human motivation. This article will break down some core concepts surrounding motivation and rewards. We’ll cover why that “equation” is more complex than it seems, we’ll demonstrate the importance of discovering what motivates an individual, and we’ll provide some tips and questions you can use with employees and candidates to find out their reward preferences. 

The Basics of Human Motivation 

Let’s begin with some underlying assumptions and principles about motivation at work. We all have heard these phrases: “He’s only doing the bare minimum” or “Why isn’t she motivated?” or “They’re just in it for the money!” However, we must recognize that it’s unreasonable to “expect” employees to perform above-and-beyond what they’re paid to do, especially if we want to encourage higher performance organically. Here’s the key: motivation is a mental state that is initiated internally. In other words, you can’t make a person feel motivated; they can only motivate themselves. So, that means when you see an employee go “above and beyond,” their actions were voluntarily offered. The question then becomes, why are they going above and beyond? We’ll explore this soon. While you can’t coerce an employee to do more than what’s in their job description (unless you’re comfortable with them getting irritated and eventually quitting), you can figure out what might make them want to boost their own performance. This reflects the main principle of motivation: for every action we take, we expect a return on investment. Long-term motivation kicks in when we work toward something rewarding, rather than working away from a threat. 

Motivation is generated internally, but this does not mean that we have zero influence over how much an employee feels motivated to perform their tasks. Organizations can absolutely construct an environment that generates high levels of motivation for everyone. So, let’s go back to the main principle: for every action we take, we expect a return on investment. There are two ways that we get a “return on investment” for our actions in the world of motivation. One is called “extrinsic” rewards (or “extrinsic motivation”) and the other is called “intrinsic” rewards (or “intrinsic motivation”). Both are important factors in boosting performance.   

“Extrinsic” motivation is when we perform an action to get something in return; in other words, our performance is “a means to an end.” Extrinsic rewards are the kinds of rewards managers typically use to try to motivate their employees; giving praise, bonuses, recognition, promotions, or extra vacation days are all examples of “extrinsic” rewards. If we had to make extrinsic motivation an equation, it would look like this: “X action will lead to Y reward.” So, for example: “I read a book for 6 hours because I’m going to be tested on it and I want a good grade” or “I work extra hours because I want a raise this year.” However, it’s a bit more complicated than this since different people prefer different extrinsic rewards; an introvert may prefer to receive a few hours of alone time as a reward, and an extrovert may prefer to receive an after-work party as a reward. This means that we must know the person that we are extrinsically incentivizing, and what they would prefer. There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to extrinsic rewards.   

“Intrinsic” motivation is different. This is when we perform an action because…well… we want to. Tasks that are inherently enjoyable fall into this category. Think about your hobbies; you don’t perform your hobby because you expect to be paid for it, you do it because you like it, and it feels rewarding. Some examples of “intrinsically rewarding” feelings/experiences could be a sense of accomplishment, opportunities to get creative, mental stimulation, feeding your curiosity, pride in self, sense of joy, problem-solving, activating your competitiveness, having a good laugh, etc. If the equation for Extrinsic Motivation was “X action will lead to Y reward,” then the equation for Intrinsic Motivation would be: “X action is the reward.” So, for example, “I read a book for 6 hours because it’s all about my favorite topic” or “I worked longer hours on this project because it engaged the creative part of my brain.” There are plenty of ways to introduce a person’s intrinsic motives into the workplace. If someone enjoys writing, you may help them start a blog at work. If a person is naturally very curious, perhaps we could delegate projects where they can do research. If someone loves chit-chatting, allow them to have more face-to-face time with customers. If their hobby is solving puzzles, maybe they’d be interested in methodical problem-solving work. While you can’t make someone intrinsically motivated, you can take elements of their motivation and turn it into rewarding work experiences. A word of caution, though – research shows that if you try to completely turn someone’s hobby into work, they may lose the sense of enjoyment for that task over time (this is called the “Undermining Effect”). The last thing you want to do is crush a person’s interest in their own hobbies. So, don’t put too much pressure on them. Instead, implement small elements of their intrinsic motives into their role, and reward their efforts with praise, which has been shown to increase intrinsic motivation. 

Key Principles to Know: 

Motivation is important for work. Though it seems obvious, high motivation to perform one’s task(s) is key to the overall success and happiness of that employee. However, the responsibility to stay motivated does not solely fall on the employee; organizations play a huge role in connecting a person’s role to tasks that motivate them. This means we need to know the needs of each person we’re trying to keep motivated. 

Motivation is not a personality trait. Motivation is a feeling, or an urge to act. People in interviews often enthusiastically say, “I’m a motivated person!” which is just like saying “I’m a hungry person!” – to which we would naturally respond: “Hungry for… what?” Think of motivation as a state, like hunger, rather than a characteristic. I might be motivated to read a certain book, but that doesn’t mean I’m motivated to do everything in the world. Remember, motivation is always tied to an action, so if a candidate tries the whole “I’m a motivated person” thing, ask them what they’re motivated by. 

Motives can change. Motivation is fluid; you may find you really enjoy a task for a few months, but the novelty wears off and you no longer feel as driven to complete it. There are many factors that can affect our level of motivation to do a certain task, such as stress, diminishing interest, or mental/physical obstacles. For example, a person may have once been highly motivated to go jogging because they enjoyed the “runners high” (the “runners high” is an intrinsic reward), but maybe they become too busy with housework, so they no longer run. In that case, they may have to find a way to extrinsically reward themselves to continue running; they might promise themselves a 30-minute break from housework to watch their favorite show if they complete a jog in the morning. The lesson here is that we can’t assume that giving someone more money will motivate them forever; there are plenty of examples of individuals starting to prefer time-off instead of a raise as their life situation evolves. People’s reward preferences can shift, so we must make sure that the rewards we give are still a good fit for their needs. 

Everybody is motivated by something. Saying a person has “no motivation” would imply that they don’t move, eat, talk, etc. Of course, everyone is motivated by our own basic human needs. On top of that, most people (except those who have had damage to the basal ganglia in their brain) are motivated to go beyond their basic needs – we just need to know what it is they’re motivated to do. Even being motivated by money isn’t the end-all-be-all – we must dig deeper: why might they be motivated to make lots of money? Is it the feeling of prestige? Are they saving up to go skydiving? Are they motivated to support their loved ones? Motivation is not cut-and-dry, but if we do know one thing, it’s that everyone is motivated by something. We can’t give up on people too quickly or pass judgement on their level of ambition. The more that we explore a person’s needs and infuse their personal motives into their work role, the more driven and focused they will feel. 

Figuring out what motivates them 

Observe. What projects does this person “light up” about? When do they seem to smile the most, talk the most, or act most comfortable when performing their tasks? Take note of these moments, as these are reflective of what the task or experience means to that individual. It may be the sense of community it creates for the person, or an opportunity to show off their talents, or just some time to engage their critical thinking. When these moments occur, connect it to what was happening at that time. What were they working on? Who was around? How much control did they have over the outcome of that task, project, or conversation? Never underestimate the power of keeping an eye out on what excites your employees. 

Measure. How many tasks do they do on a day-to-day basis? How complex is their job, on a scale from 1-10? Has their morale increased or decreased since starting a certain project? The more objective data we can gather about them and their role, the better. This means gathering facts about a person’s level of enjoyment doing certain tasks, rather than simply assuming they enjoy those tasks. One thing you could do is sit down with your employee and list out all the main tasks they’ve been doing for the last month (even the small things, like sending emails and reaching out to people). Have them rank these tasks by how fulfilling they are. For the tasks they seem to enjoy the most, what are the elements of these tasks that seem to be most satisfying to them? Are these tasks more independence-oriented, or team-oriented? Do these tasks require more creativity, or structure? Does it require routine, or is it more flexible? Does the person have a lot of freedom in defining the outcome of these tasks, or is the task more expectation-based? Over time, measuring these variables can help you build a profile of the kind of work that will be most motivating to that specific person. 

Ask. At the end of the day, you can always just ask the person what motivates them! Be open to their answers, and don’t be too quick to end the conversation, make assumptions, or become critical. “Personal motives” are exactly how they sound: personal. So be sure to listen carefully/respectfully to their answers and take plenty of notes. Get creative with your questions and remember all the motivation basics discussed earlier. The goal is to figure out both their “extrinsic reward preferences” and “intrinsic reward preferences.” Figuring out a person’s extrinsic reward preferences is a bit simpler; you could create a list of rewards and have them pick what would be most incentivizing to them – what do they want to work towards? Intrinsic reward preferences are tougher to uncover. If you want to figure out what’s intrinsically rewarding to them, here are some questions you could start with: 

    1. Hobbies: “What are some of your favorite things to do in your free time? Do you tend to enjoy hobbies that are independent or group-based? Do you enjoy activities that require a lot of thinking, or quick-actions?”
    2. Vision: “If you had all the freedom to define your role, what would you be doing right now? Out of your current tasks what would you be doing more of, and which ones would you be doing less of? What personality traits do you have that you’d like to engage more in your current role? Do you have any talents you’d like to be showing off more in your role? What would you like to learn more about in the next 5 years?”
    3. Needs: “What’s the biggest challenge you currently face in your role, and why? What’s one thing we could be doing (as a team or organization) to make you feel most successful and happy?” 

We worked our way through a few equations here. For extrinsic motivation, “X” action leads to “Y” reward, and for intrinsic motivation, “X” action is the reward. However, that still doesn’t mean that if we give a person “any ol’ reward” they’ll respond with higher performance (as we noted in the introduction to this article). If we want to truly boost motivation, we must know what is rewarding to each person and whether that reward will incentivize the behavior we’re expecting. In other words, if you’re expecting higher performance on a certain task, then attach a personalized “rewarding experience” to that task. Every person is different, and therefore, everyone’s motivation works differently. If you stay alert, curious, and helpful, you’ll have a much higher chance of effectively fostering motivation for each of your team members.