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“Money makes the world go around,” so sang Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.

Or does it?

A plethora of research has now confirmed that for complex tasks, it’s counterproductive to try and motivate humans with money.

In the realm of reward and motivation, researchers make the distinction between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.

The principal extrinsic motivator in the modern world is of course money, but extrinsic can also mean more subtle forms of ‘if-then’ rewards, like, “If you achieve this, then you I will praise you.” This could be giving someone an ‘exceeds expectations’ score in their annual performance review.

Early proof that extrinsic motivation does not work for complex tasks was based on an exercise using two versions of Duncker’s candle problem. Participants must fix the candle to the wall and light it in such a way that wax won’t drip on the table. The exercise measures someone’s problem-solving capabilities.

The solution to the problem is shown below. Almost everyone presented with Scenario 1 is successful and almost everyone presented with Scenario 2 is not.

When the economist Dan Ariely looked at how people behave under Scenario 1, with the solution obvious, extrinsic motivation wins. In Scenario 2, where the solution is not obvious, intrinsic motivation wins.

In another study, Theresa Amabile looked at commissioned versus non-commissioned artists. She found that the non-commissioned artists, who sought their inspiration from within, were more creative, to quote: “People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest intrinsic in the challenge of the work itself—not external pressures”.

So, if we agree that:

  • most knowledge work is complex, and
  • the best reward strategy is to appeal to people’s intrinsic motivation

We need to work out what motivates our teams form the inside. This is where Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 Practice of Moving Motivators is a powerful tool.

How Moving Motivators built bonds and helped reveal rewards in our team

Jurgen has created a set of playing cards that people can use to build a map of their personal motivations. I put this tool to the test recently with a client team.

I asked each team member to rank each of ten motivators into one of five levels or “swim lanes” from a bottom Level 0, to a top Level 4. Now each motivator for that individual gets a score. In the example below, Acceptance and Mastery each got three points, while the values at the bottom received none.

We then totalled the number of points for each motivator for the team as a whole and built a spider diagram of the team’s overall intrinsic motivation. Honour and Mastery topped our team’s motivators.

It was a great exercise. It was fun and got people much better related to each other. After the main evaluation, the group were buzzing about what motivated them, what rewards they could use, and where they might start developing according to their motivations.

I urge you to give this a go with your team. At the least, I guarantee you’ll have fun and feel closer to your colleagues. It may even help you work out how to organise your rewards.

As a parting shot, here’s a suggestion for Lady Gaga if you’re reading; update Liza’s classic hit with this catchy legend: “Intrinsic motivation makes the modern world go around” – and maybe promote it with a costume of Moving Motivator cards..

A big thank you to Jennifer Riggins for her excellent editing.