Motivation: Paying tolls or taking the toll free journey to Agile Performance Management

Motivation is the feeling that moves us to do something. That feeling might be caused by the prospect of being threatened or of being rewarded. Whatever the cause, it needs to be sufficient to overcome the alternative to do nothing. After all, doing nothing is our most effective way to conserve energy until something better comes along!

In looking at motivation we can split rewards into intrinsic motivators, the things that give us natural drive such as the enjoyment of learning, or reaching a new goal, or being appreciated, versus extrinsic motivators, the things that are external to us such as trophies, money or a gift. Threats can similarly be separated into intrinsic and extrinsic types of threat.

On this part of the journey to Agile Performance Management we look at how to motivate. Will paying the tolls of tangible rewards get you to your destination faster than the indirect route of tuning in to intrinsic motivation? Should you buy a season pass and use the toll roads all the time? How do you know if your chosen motivators are working?

Road Tax versus Tolls

Firstly let's acknowledge that at some level most people work for money. If they were not being paid something, most people would not show up for 35-40 hours a week at your place of business to do your work. This basic pay is road tax. You pay it no matter how much mileage you intend to drive on the road to agile performance management. 

There have been many times I've heard owners and principals say "They get their recognition every pay day" meaning that getting paid a wage is all of the motivation necessary. This is seldom said in jest, so why would successful and senior people hold this view? It could be that workplace motivation needs have changed relatively recently.


Given the many options of 'extra' incentives available, which motivators are likely to have the greatest benefits?Looking at these trends it would seem like the employer/employee agreement needs something more than the traditional cash heavy deal (the road tax) to be motivating in the long term.

Motivation and the brain

Taking a look at the way our brains process reward might tell us something about how to motivate our people better.

Recent work by Neuroscientists Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz suggests the key may be 'Reward Prediction Error".

Simply put, the hypothesis is that humans continually scan their environment to predict what is going to happen. When our prediction is incorrect this leads to learning (which itself is neurologically rewarding). Learning leads to curiosity that we want to test our now modified prediction again. This repetition is called approach behavior. When we do it, if our new prediction is not correct then the cycle repeats.

In our quest for certainty, the prospect of a reward plus our failure to predict what this will be can create more powerful motivation to repeat a behaviour than the guarantee of a reward that is totally predictable.

For the mathematicians, the most basic formula is Positive Emotions (Dopamine) = Reward Received - Reward Predicted

Interestingly if the link between behavior and ultimate reward is clear, the experience of positive emotions can be shifted so that it is generated by the behavior instead of the reward itself. For example earning a sales commission is more rewarding when it is earned, than when the commission itself is deposited into our bank account.

For the effect to work, the subjective value of a possible reward has to be commensurate with the risk of missing out on a lesser but more certain reward. The brain as it turns out is very good at assessing this. Depending on the answer, it will either motivate us to follow risk seeking behavior of chasing the higher reward, or risk avoiding behavior of chasing the more certain reward.

This helps us in 3 ways. The first is that value is subjective - this means we need to tailor rewards to individuals to get maximum impact from them. The second is that there is more motivational gain from rewards that have moderate risk and moderate value than extremes. Finally, if there is a history of reward, and for the same behavior that reward is removed it probably goes without saying that this has a negative effect on motivating people to demonstrate that behavior and this can be long lived.

This is fairly complex research that I have simplified greatly to fit into a short post. For the detail behind it look at the work of Stauffer, Lak & Schultz 2014

Establishing Subjective Value

Given that subjective value is the key to motivation, what is the best way to work this out for your people? 

Tailoring rewards to the person can be challenging. Especially looking across a team and balancing this to show equity between peers. It's still important that the perceived value for one is equivalent to others for similar outcomes even though the actual reward may be totally different.

The key here is to construct a total deal for the person, and not attempt to balance out every individual element of reward and recognition with everyone else. 

With a small team and a culture of empowerment where there is autonomy to make reward and recognition decisions, the very best way to do this is to talk with your people about where they see value.

Ask them individually how they would like to be recognized for good work. What they enjoy doing in their own time. Their favourites; food, music, books, movies, sports teams. What's their travel dream? Skills they don't get to use at work. Causes they care about, and so on.

Knowing this will help you decide for each person, between intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators and to match the reward to the circumstance. It will also help you deliver some surprises where the reward received has greater value than may have been predicted.

For large organisations or unionized workers, where flexibility is limited, look at what you can do within your own discretion. Again make sure you know who is intrinsically and extrinsically motivated and match your response to that.

For example, would a private and personal thank you be better received than a public round of applause in a team meeting? Would ringing a bell for each new account that’s signed drive your sales team to win, or crush them with anxiety? Would a day at a conference have more subjective value than an extra day off to spend with family?

The remaining factor to consider in establishing subjective value is effort discounting.

Basically the more effort involved in earning a reward, the less likely we become to repeat that effort. If the bar is continually raised before we earn our next reward, eventually we will reach breaking point and simply stop trying  Subjective value decreases as required effort increases so make sure the juice is worth the squeeze! Effort discounting is covered in detail in Motivation: Theory, Neurobiology and Applications

The toll or toll-free route

As in previous parts of our journey to agile performance management, knowing our people individually and tailoring our approaches to each of them is critical.

With motivation, we need to consider if each of our team members is intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated. Once we know the answer to that, we can offer intangible and tangible rewards that have most subjective value to them.

By keeping a careful eye on effort discounting we can ensure that our intentions to motivate are having the right effect.

The psychology of motivation is complex and Neuroscience is proving a number of long held motivational theories to be inaccurate. Motivating through brain savvy processes and workplace positivity is a passion for the team at Pay Compliment, and something we strive to build further into our platform.

What trends are you seeing in approaches to motivating your teams? Engage with us in the comments.


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