Motivation: Part 1 – The Carrot and Stick, and How to Change the World


Motivation is one of the biggest determinants for whether a person will achieve a goal or not. Not their physical capabilities. Not their nutrition. Not their genetic makeup. Motivation is one of the biggest hurdles anyone has to overcome when beginning a new challenge, and the difference between the different motivational factors will determine whether the person is able to stick with their goal for the short term or make a life-long change.

But what is it that motivates people? We all know the basics like the biological drive and algorithmic drive. The biological drive is responsible for attaining food, shelter, safety and the propagation of the species (ie. sex). If you have ever been hungry, you know that it is all you think about and it consumes your thoughts until your can eat, because without food we all turn into characters on the Hills. The algorithmic drive is the one that allows us to learn through rewards and consequences. If we hit our head walking under a step, hopefully the next time we walk under it we have learned to duck, or we will suffer the same headaches as in the past. Likewise, if we push a button and a door opens in front of us that we want to walk through, then we will most likely be pushing that button again, rather than simply pushing the door and burning an extra half a calorie. Much of our corporate society and way of life is developed to revolve around this rewards-and-consequence mindset. We see it in corporations who give bonuses for performance, and the bigger the bonus, the bigger the expected productivity. Likewise, there are consequences for undesirable behaviours. By not conforming to a corporations way of performing or by going against the hierarchy of control results in either disciplinary actions or termination.
Is this the most effective way of doing things? We all learned the hard way how short-term rewards like annual and quarterly bonuses can negatively effect the long-term stability after watching the financial meltdown of 2008-2009. Executives so focused on the short term profitability of their portfolios mortgaged the future of the nation (literally) by offering a new type of loan that would allow for more loans to be approved. The long-term effect was not well-conceived, as interest rates rose and people could not afford to pay for their homes and began defaulting on them in record numbers.

Additionally, this type of rewards system doesn’t tend to allow the employees to express their creativity to their full potential. Let’s imagine what would have happened if Michelangelo would have been given a quota from the Vatican on the number of works he was to turn out in a given time, or of the number of religious images that each piece had to include. Would we be talking about him today, or would we consider him to be a historical shill, working for the highest bidder? We understand that this type of motivation does not work well for anything other than the most mundane tasks (sorting, filing, book work, etc), whereas it actually cripples the work of those involving creativity, spontaneity, and thoughtfulness. We can see this in the quality of movie productions coming from major studios versus independent studios. The major studios seem to produce packaged, homogenized, and “done before” movies, where as the studios that have freedom to work at their own pace, on their own subjects, without as many hands involved typically produce the greatest number of Academy Awards and memorable stories.

Too many people involved in jobs that have hierarchical structures based on rewards and consequences will report that they hate their job, and that it drains their energy, effects their mood, their lifestyle, and outlook on life as a whole. When we cannot express ourselves, feel creative, and get actual enjoyment out of our work (to many, our purpose for life), we cannot thrive.

A third drive, the intrinsic drive, exists within each of us, and drives us towards our true potential, even if we are not aware of it. Everyone has something they do that gives them little physical, financial, nutritional or social benefit, but they do it any way. Watch kids at play. Do you think they are thinking about how their movements are preparing them for a lifetime of athleticism, or worrying about the impact of aerobic activity on their future risk of diabetes? No. They play because it’s fun. When we work, we tend to get the great satisfaction, enjoyment and happiness from those jobs that allow autonomy, freedom, personal fulfillment, and the feeling that what we are doing is actually benefiting those we intend it to benefit (ie. not ourselves). Doing charity work or volunteering is one such example of this type of motivation. Doing so provides no direct benefit to the individual, but many who do it do so for free and would actually not engage in the activity if they were going to be paid. There is a butt-load of research out there showing that people want to feel good about their work, and that they would work for free if they like the work they are doing. Why would someone take a lower paying job that gave them more satisfaction and had a better working environment? Why would someone take a different position that involved working with kids or the disabled to provide them with tools and supplies that will make their lives easier? Because there is a deep feeling of happiness and personal gratification associated with these actions. The actions have also been associated with a higher retention of participants, greater overall involvement, and higher rate of productivity than conventional jobs where the carrot reward is dangled in front of the employees.

So if this type of motivation is so much more superior to the carrot-and-stick method, why is it that the old way is still in place? Maybe it’s harder to treat each individual as an individual and give them the autonomy to do their best, and it is easier to give a blanket protocol of rewards and punishments for any situation. We know this doesn’t work.

Let’s look at exercise. Beginning presents no real challenge to the individual, it’s actually one of the easiest best habits to begin, yet their motivation is not there. We can give them a reward to get the ball rolling, but after a while they may expect a reward to continue the activity, and would actually stop working out if the reward wasn’t present. How do we get people motivated to find that intrinsic drive that will give them freedom, autonomy, and the chance to excel and achieve their goals? We’ll continue this thought process in part two next time.

About deansomerset

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Post-Rehab Specialist, personal trainer and probably the coolest guy my mom knows, I try to impart a little knowledge with a sense of humor to keep people reading. I've always thought if it's something that can grab your attention, you're gonna remember it tomorrow!!
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