How do you know if you are selecting the right motivational strategies to convince your employees, peers, and even yourself to work smarter and harder?
Behavioral scientists have been researching the different ways people motivate themselves and others for decades. Their experiments have shown, for instance, that people work harder when they get feedback, set ambitious goals, and are given incentivizes.
But after recently conducting a review of more than 150 scientific articles on motivation, we found that each of these motivational tools can also unexpectedly backfire. For example, positive feedback can lead recipients to relax their effort, overly ambitious goals can cause employees to give up, and incentives can undermine intrinsic interest.
Chances are that you (at least sometimes) are using the wrong tools under the wrong circumstances. We propose a set of guidelines for when and how to use different types of motivational tactics, so that you can better understand how to effectively motivate yourself and others.
There are two primary forms of feedback: positive and negative. Neither one is better than the other. In some circumstances, positive feedback can be more effective for motivation because it increases people’s commitment and confidence. In others, negative feedback can be more effective because it signals that more effort is needed.
Because positive feedback enhances personal commitment, it works best when recipients are questioning their commitment to a task. That’s why novices or people who are disengaged are best served by positive feedback. A new employee is likely to thrive under positive feedback, but wilt under negative feedback.
In contrast, negative feedback is ideal for people who are already committed to achieving their goals, but just need a push to reach them. Feedback that emphasizes their lack of progress increases their motivation. So people with expertise in a particular domain, such as professional speakers, not only respond better to negative feedback, they also seek more negative feedback.
To increase performance, it is often useful to set challenging and proximal deadlines (e.g., “finish reading a professional magazine in the next 30 minutes”). People—even animals—tend to work harder and faster when approaching a finish line.
Typically, a shorter distance between you and your goal is more motivating than a longer one. It feels within reach, and it’s easier to feel that you’re making progress. This means people should set closer targets or sub-goals. So instead of telling yourself or your employees to finish a project in the next month, focus on achieving certain milestones by the end of each week.
Research also shows that when beginning to pursue a goal, people should focus on the progress they’ve made rather than on the progress they still have to make. Only when they’re closer to the finish line should people focus on the remaining distance between them and their goal. Focusing on the least amount of distance—either from the start or from the end of your project— is more motivating.
For example, consider loyalty programs that use “buy 10, get one free” cards. These can focus consumers on either accumulated progress (by stamping the card for each purchase) or remaining progress (by punching a hole in the card). A study showed that those who are farther from the reward are more motivated when they receive stamps, because the card highlights how much progress they have already made. Conversely, those who are close to the reward are more likely to keep buying when holes are punched in the card, because that method highlights what is still between them and their reward.
People are also particularly conscientious of their work when they are just beginning to pursue a goal and when they’ve nearly reached it. Research has found that people are more likely to slack off or behave unethically around the middle of a project. Since people will produce their highest quality work as they’re getting started or about to wrap up, it might be useful to re-frame their goal pursuit—by setting smaller goals, for example—so that people don’t feel stuck in the middle.
Another common mistake with goal setting is choosing the wrong means or approach for achieving your objectives. Research has shown that it’s more effective to tailor your approach based on one specific goal you’re trying to reach than to apply a one-size-fits-all approach that could work for any goal. For example, if you want to have more productive staff meetings, it may help to choose an office space that is only used for important group meetings, rather than one that people also associate with one-on-ones or lunch breaks.
Incentives can be categorized into three types: immediate (vs. delayed), certain (vs. uncertain), and extrinsic (vs. intrinsic).
Immediate incentives are psychologically more appealing than delayed incentives. People will work harder for incentives they can get sooner—even if they are smaller than those they would get after waiting longer. The lesson here is simple: To motivate people, use immediate incentives.
People similarly prefer incentives of a certain value over those of an uncertain value. For example, compared to a promotion that offers shoppers an uncertain reward (e.g., “$30 or $50 off if you spend over $200”), one with a certain reward (e.g., “$40 off if you spend over $200”) would more likely fare better.
However, there are times when uncertain incentives can be more motivating. If they offer a higher potential value, for instance, people may be optimistic and more motivated to pursue them. They can also be exciting, leading some to work harder. In one experiment participants evaluated a series of print advertisements in return for a prize of either a certain amount or an uncertain amount. In the certain conditions, participants expected a bonus of 50% of their base pay. In the uncertain condition, the bonus could either be 20% or 50% of their base pay (to be determined by a lottery). People who expected a bonus of 50% of their base pay worked less hard than those who weren’t sure what their bonus would ultimately be, which suggests that “mystery” rewards (i.e., of uncertain value) can be exciting and push some to work harder.
Incentives can also be extrinsic (e.g., money, perks, etc.) or intrinsic (e.g., satisfying work). Some activities offer both: a paying job can also be satisfying. However, adding extrinsic incentives often leads people to see less intrinsic benefit. In one study, children were less willing to consume food when it was framed as healthy (extrinsic benefit), because they then perceived the food as being less tasty (lower intrinsic benefit).
People also seem to value intrinsic incentives more when they are in the middle of pursuing a goal than when they have not yet started. This is why when people are selecting a job, they often put relatively less emphasis on things such as interest in the task and employee morale, compared with extrinsic benefits like salary. But when going to the job each day, people care relatively more about these intrinsic incentives. Thus, tangible incentives should be emphasized in advance, while more intrinsic ones should be used to motivate employees already working toward something.
Just as people fail to recognize the value of intrinsic incentives for themselves, they also underestimate its importance for others. People tend to believe interesting work tasks and morale are more important to them than to their colleagues. As a result, when motivating others, people may choose to use fewer intrinsic incentives than they would for themselves.
All of this behavioral research can provide guidance on how to better motivate yourself and others. There are three key conclusions to keep in mind. First, apply positive feedback to enhance commitment and negative feedback to highlight slow progress. Second, set near-term goal targets; people work faster and better at the beginning and end than in the middle. Finally, do not underestimate the value of immediate, certain, and intrinsic incentives – but also recognize when they might fail. Selecting the best motivational tool is not just an art – it’s a science.