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Why Short-Term Motivation Fails but Long-Term Motivation Succeeds

When it comes to motivating employees, most people in the leadership development field refer to Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This work does an excellent job of distinguishing between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Managers can become more effective by learning to use positive motivational tools to engage employees for the long term.

Let’s start with the 3 extrinsic motivators that managers gravitate towards because they can work – but only for a short time. These extrinsic motivators are:

  1. Financial Status — the need to pay the bills
  2. Emotional Pressure — being psychologically tricked into thinking I have to do this:
    1. Because my boss told me to
    2. Because I’m the breadwinner in family
  3. Inertia — doing something because I did it yesterday
    1. Out of habit
    2. Out of convenience – it is inconvenient to realize I could be motivated by something greater

We agree with Daniel Pink in that extrinsic motivators are ultimately negative because they will only work for so long.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivators are tools that managers can use to help employees become more excited and connected to the work that they do. These 3 intrinsic motivational factors are:

  1. Mastery
  2. Purpose
  3. Autonomy

While Pink does a great job of describing these intrinsic motivators, we find that the work of Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi in the book Primed to Perform  describes positive motivational factors that we’ve found to be more useful to build manager skills with our clients.

The first positive motivational factor is:

  1. Play: an activity that people enjoy doing.
    1. No one tells them how or when to start/stop
    2. Flow, or when people lose track of time
    3. Engaged- 100% mentally there in the activity

In some ways, play mirrors the concept of Autonomy that Daniel Pink outlined, except with the added element of joy. Companies have been using the idea of play to increase employee engagement for a long time, but they just called it “Tinkering Time”.

For example, WL Gore, Google, and a number of other companies will tell their individual contributors: “You get to do what you want with a half day per week. You choose what you want to work on. So long as fulfills our vision, you get to tinker.”

These company leaders are granting playtime for individuals, and it’s purposeful: people get to be creative and innovate to solve problems the move the team towards the vision, but in a way that for the individual is personally interesting, and so the work becomes truly productive. Play as the strongest motivating factor.

The second positive motivating factor is:

  1. Purpose: doing an activity for a greater reason than ourselves

Purpose involves understanding the bigger impact of an activity, whether that be on a team, the organization, or on the clients and communities that the organization deals with.

The third positive motivating factor is:

  1. Potential: doing an activity because it will lead me to a higher status

While employees may not enjoy the particular activity they are doing, they understand the value of learning that activity to develop in their career. Potential mirrors Daniel Pink’s definition of mastery in that both of these motivating factors drive a person to progress state in their career.

In short, play, purpose, and potential are 3 positive, long term motivators that change employee engagement behavior for the long run. When managers can learn to ask questions about what brings them joy, help them understand how their daily responsibilities contribute to the bigger picture, and work with them to define a career development path, a company can sustain employee engagement for the long run.

Watch Ziksana’s Founder, Akshay Sateesh, discuss the 3 long-term positive motivators!

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