Motivation Done Right

By Susan Fowler

Motivation science provides alternatives to outdated approaches to workplace motivation.

Managers are being held accountable for something they cannot do: motivate people. Despite elaborate attempts to engage, entice, cheer, praise, bribe, challenge, shame, pressure, or game people into sustained high-quality performance, organizations are still faced with an underused, underperforming, and disengaged workforce—and employees who might leave if they had a place to go.

Even if, based on your experience, you think this is an overstatement, you still can probably agree that most leaders have not cracked the code for optimizing people's potential. Traditional motivation approaches are failing. It is time to put the science of motivation to work and embrace alternative approaches to workplace motivation.

What it is

According to Merriam-Webster, motivation is "the condition of being eager to act or work." Motivation is at the heart of everything employees do—or don't do, as the case may be—yet it is one of the most misunderstood concepts in leadership.

Without an understanding of the true nature of human motivation, organizations are wasting millions on employee engagement initiatives, reward and recognition schemes, retention programs, customer service programs, and performance management systems. Worse still, organizations are losing opportunities for generating creativity, innovation, and a thriving workplace. It doesn't have to be this way.

How it works

People with optimal motivational outlooks are significantly more likely to have five intentions characteristic of employee work passion: to stay, endorse the organization, use discretionary effort on behalf of the organization, use citizenship behaviors, and perform at above-expected standards.


Building on the wealth of evidence from motivation science, we can implement pragmatic training and development solutions—if HR and senior-level executives have the expertise, patience, and courage to take advantage of them.

Don't get trapped in the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation duality. Knowing about motivation science is different from applying it. As often happens, early attempts to explain science reduce it to easily digestible nuggets as a way to call attention to a new paradigm—for example, intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

This compelling research resonates with many HR professionals. Leaders gravitate to the idea of an intrinsically motivated workforce. But this seemingly simple concept proves to be impossible to put into daily practice.

Realistically, how often during the day are people intrinsically motivated at work? How frequently are they experiencing pure enjoyment for what they are doing? (Probably not often.) An intrinsically motivating job is an elusive reality and unfair expectation. It remains a philosophical ideal rather than an institutionalized best practice. Eventually executives discount the "new stuff" and revert to the devil they know—traditional motivation, rejecting the promises of a new paradigm.

We need to encourage executives to go beyond simplistic explanations of complex science, recognize the rich and profound nature of human motivation, and invest the time to explore and develop best practices that promise realistic alternatives to traditional motivation.

There is a spectrum of motivation possibilities, not just two. Science reveals six motivational outlooks that people might experience at work every day. Three are optimal motivational outlooks—aligned, integrated, and inherent—resulting in the positive implications of intrinsic motivation and, in two cases, delivering potentially greater benefits. Three are suboptimal motivational outlooks—disinterested, external, and imposed—resulting in the negative implications of extrinsic motivation.

Even researchers who put intrinsic motivation on the map argue that self-identifying with an activity, deriving a deep sense of purpose, and satisfying three psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence, can result in the same benefits of pure intrinsic motivation. In fact, aligned or integrated motivational outlooks based on values and purpose often result in healthier and more sustainable experiences than pure, intrinsic enjoyment.

Stop beating your people with carrots. The quality of energy unleashed when employees are optimally motivated through mindfulness, values, purpose, and joy is different from the energy generated through rewards, incentives, power, status, image, shame, guilt, or fear of disappointing others (or oneself).

Beating people with sticks and bribing them with carrots undermine the autonomy, relatedness, and competence needed for optimal motivation. Ironically, the often well-intentioned carrots become sticks when people feel pressured to perform for the carrot ("I have to make my numbers so I can go on the sales reward trip").

Motivation is a skill. People can experience high-quality motivation anytime and anywhere they choose. After 15 years of applying the science of motivation globally, we have demonstrated that motivation is a skill that can be taught, learned, nurtured, and sustained. People can learn to identify their motivational outlook, shift to a more optimal motivational outlook, and reflect on their feelings that sustain the positive energy, vitality, and sense of well-being that comes from high-quality motivation.

Motivating people doesn't work because people already are motivated. People are always motivated, but not always in optimal ways. The question is not if a person is motivated, the question is why. When leaders focus on the quality of people's motivation and identify the type of motivation they have, they can help facilitate the person's shift to a more optimal motivational outlook. Leaders cannot motivate anyone, but through best practices, they can help people shift to an optimal motivational outlook.


Primary research conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies found that people experiencing suboptimal motivational outlooks have significantly high negative correlations with the five intentions mentioned earlier: to stay, endorse the organization, use discretionary effort on behalf of the organization, use citizenship behaviors, and perform at above-expected standards.

Optimal motivation fuels employee work passion. Suboptimal motivation fuels disengagement.

With expertise, patience, and courage we can get to the other side of complexity and reap the rewards of optimal motivation. Motivating people doesn't work, but teaching motivation as a skill and applying best practices to create workplaces where people are more likely to experience optimal motivation, yields the results executives seek while helping people flourish.