Frederik Van Lierde

The Myth of Motivation: Why Praise and Money Don't Fuel Long-Term Success

Discover the secret to sustainable workplace motivation with insights from leadership expert Susan Fowler. Learn how autonomy, relatedness, and competence can transform employee engagement and drive productivity, with real-world success stories from leading companies The Myth of Motivation: Why Praise and Money Don't Fuel Long-Term Success
Motivation is a complex and often misunderstood concept, especially in the context of leadership and management. Traditional methods of motivating people, which often rely on external rewards or punishments, are increasingly seen as ineffective. Here's why, along with examples from the real world that illustrate these points.

The Misconception of Motivation

External Motivation is Superficial

Susan Fowler, a top leadership researcher, argues that trying to motivate people is frustrating and ineffective because people are already motivated, just not in ways that are meaningful and sustainable. External motivators such as money, praise, and special privileges can lead to superficial and short-term engagement.

The core issue with external motivators is that they don't tap into the individual's internal values and drivers, which are essential for long-term engagement and satisfaction. Susan Fowler highlights that while external rewards like bonuses or public accolades might spur immediate action, they often don't align with an individual's intrinsic goals and aspirations.

As a result, the motivation they provide is fleeting; once the reward is obtained or the praise fades, so does the drive to perform. Sustainable motivation stems from fulfilling deeper psychological needs, such as the desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. When motivation is purely transactional, it fails to foster genuine commitment or creativity, leading to a workforce that is only temporarily engaged and often less productive.

An Example
Consider the case of a sales team incentivized purely by commission. While this structure might initially drive a spike in sales efforts, it can also lead to burnout, unethical sales practices, and a competitive atmosphere that undermines teamwork.

The team's focus shifts to the short-term gains of closing deals by any means necessary, rather than the long-term health of customer relationships or the quality of the service provided. This approach often results in a high turnover rate, as employees feel undervalued and unconnected to the company's broader goals. In contrast, a sales team that is motivated by a shared vision of success, with support for individual growth and a clear connection between their role and the company's mission, is more likely to show sustained engagement and produce high-quality work.

The New Science of Leading

Fowler's work is based on the premise that people are always motivated, but the key is understanding *why* they are motivated. She outlines a model that helps leaders move people away from external rewards to discover how their jobs can meet deeper psychological needs - for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

The "New Science of Leading," as introduced by Susan Fowler, suggests a paradigm shift from the traditional carrot-and-stick approach to a more nuanced understanding of motivation. This perspective recognizes that while everyone is motivated, the underlying reasons can vary greatly.

Fowler's model encourages leaders to cultivate an environment where employees feel a sense of autonomy in their roles, a connection with their colleagues and the organization (relatedness), and the ability to develop and demonstrate competence.

An Example
Consider a technology firm that replaced its rigid hierarchy with a flat organizational structure, giving developers more autonomy over their projects. This shift empowered the team to take ownership of their work and innovate more freely.

By encouraging collaboration and cross-departmental interactions, the firm fostered a sense of relatedness among its staff. Regular skill-building workshops and opportunities for professional development also allowed employees to enhance their competence.

As a result, the company not only reported higher job satisfaction among employees but also saw an increase in productivity and the quality of their products, illustrating Fowler's principles in action. By focusing on these psychological needs, leaders can inspire a more profound and enduring form of motivation that goes beyond superficial, short-lived incentives.

Real-World Examples of Misguided Motivation

Praise as a Fading Motivator

Praise is a common extrinsic motivator in childhood, but its effectiveness wanes as people grow older. While it can be a temporary boost, relying on praise to motivate adults, especially in the workplace, can lead to dependence on external validation rather than fostering internal satisfaction.

The Limits of Monetary Incentives

While almost everyone is motivated by money to some extent, it's a motivation force that often lacks depth. Monetary incentives can drive people to show up for work, but they don't necessarily encourage them to find deeper meaning in their tasks or to engage with their work in a fulfilling way.

The Drawbacks of Special Privileges

Special privileges can act as a motivator, especially for children and teenagers, but when used in adult settings, such as in politics or corporate environments, they can create a culture of favoritism and inequity, which can be demotivating for others.

The Problem with Trophies and Grades

Trophies and grades are often used as benchmarks of success and can motivate individuals to achieve. However, this external motivation can overshadow the intrinsic pleasure of the activity itself, such as a student who studies for the grade rather than for the joy of learning.

Avoiding Punishments

Negative reinforcements, like the threat of punishment, can compel people to act, but they do so out of fear rather than genuine interest or commitment. This type of motivation is external and can lead to a stressful environment, which is counterproductive in the long term.

The Optimal Motivation Process

Fowler's Optimal Motivation process encourages leaders to help their people discover how their jobs can meet their psychological needs. This approach has been proven in organizations worldwide, including companies like Microsoft, NASA, and Mattel, and leads to increased productivity, engagement, and a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Instead of using external rewards or punishments, it guides leaders to align work with the innate psychological needs of their employees. This method involves understanding and supporting the individual's need for autonomy, ensuring they feel a sense of belonging and connection (relatedness), and enabling them to build and display their competence.

For example, instead of offering bonuses for innovation, companies could provide time and resources for employees to pursue passion projects related to their work. This autonomy allows individuals to explore creative solutions without the pressure of immediate rewards, leading to more genuine and potentially groundbreaking innovations.

Leaders could also build a culture of recognition where contributions to innovation are acknowledged as part of a collective goal, not just individual achievement. This helps meet the psychological need for relatedness and competence, as employees feel their work is both valued and part of a larger purpose.

At NASA, engaging scientists and engineers in projects where they feel a strong sense of autonomy and purpose has been crucial for innovation. NASA's culture promotes relatedness by emphasizing teamwork on missions, fostering a sense of belonging and unity among diverse teams.

Employees are also encouraged to further their expertise, enhancing their competence and contributing to the agency's groundbreaking achievements. This application of the Optimal Motivation process has not only fueled NASA's pioneering ventures into space but also ensured a motivated workforce driven by an inner sense of purpose and satisfaction. Employees find greater meaning in their work, leading to enhanced productivity, deeper engagement, and genuine fulfillment. This holistic approach has been successfully implemented in renowned organizations such as Microsoft, NASA, and Mattel, demonstrating its effectiveness across various industries.


The key takeaway is that leaders should focus less on external motivators and more on helping individuals find intrinsic value in their work. This shift leads to a more profound sense of purpose and fulfillment, which is both more effective and more sustainable than traditional motivation techniques.

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