What Really Motivates Us to Do Our Best

December 2017

man chasing carrot

Image source: Thinkstock

In the opening to a TED Talk by Dan Ariely, the Duke University professor recalls a former student who spent weeks perfecting a PowerPoint for a big bank where he worked. On the eve of the presentation, he happily sent the slide deck to his boss, who responded that it looked good but wouldn’t be used; the proposed merger it was based on had been cancelled.

Similarly, in Ariely’s book, Payoff, he describes a team of Seattle software engineers who gladly worked late when needed and made personal sacrifices to see a big project through. Then that initiative too was cancelled.

In both cases, people rapidly moved from disappointment to depression. They started coming into work later and doing only what was required. No doubt resumes privately were updated. The employees no longer were motivated to work at their respective organizations, at least with much enthusiasm.

I’d like to say these examples are atypical, but they aren’t. We all pour considerable emotional capital into passion projects that are dead on arrival. Or perhaps we enthusiastically present a qualified prospect met with a “meh” by others on a team. The rejection, especially if handled callously, leaves us questioning who we work for and why we bother to work hard at all.

Behavioral psychologists and economists have long known money is not the prime motivator for truly innovative employees and leaders. Even I learned decades ago as a newly minted manager that the way to retain top talent and partnerships is through appropriate recognition and continued competence. If you feel your contributions are valued, you happily will continue to work hard and raise the bar.

Sometimes it’s a management issue. Not everyone has a high level of emotional intelligence to know how to motivate someone. Instead, they excel at de-motivating through their criticism or lack of interest. Then, of course, they blame everyone else when productivity drops and talent flees. Or they erroneously believe a bonus or pay raise alone will boost morale.

“When we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing,” Ariely said during his talk. “But the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it—meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc.”

If you find you aren’t motivated at your job, consider some of these tactics:

  • Create a personal vision statement of where you want to be in two, five and 10 years and the kind of projects that will get you there.
  • Periodically do a self-assessment to make sure you are stretching your skills (but not beyond any newfound abilities).
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Malcontents tend to breed when an organization is in transition or a bad boss remains. Vent and then move on to brighter pastures (or at least people).
  • Start looking for new work. By seeing what other employers value, you’ll be more motivated to upgrade your skills and accomplishments at your current job.


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