Few employees (or adventurers) start a new job demotivated, but many fail to maintain that ‘first day’ enthusiasm. Something happens to them. They become clock-watching zombies. Sitting at their desk drooling, physically present but mentally absent. How do you get these people back with the program? For that matter how can you keep all of your team focused and fired up?

Some people think that the challenge of motivation isn’t relevant to high performance athletes or rock-star sales gurus, but it is. For everyone. Every day.

The problem of lack of motivation is widespread. Only about one in four workers are giving incremental effort; about 65% are just going through the motions; which leaves 10% who have to all intent quit but are still turning up. As they say in the military – ‘retired on active duty’.

As we set out on an adventure I had dreamed about, rowing 5000km across the Atlantic Ocean, everything was going to plan…

Within 24 hours, we faced unexpected adversity. We had gone straight into a major storm – headwinds, waves and currents. With our progress stalled we faced a choice. Put out a sea anchor, which would reduce the rate at which we would be pushed backwards, but at least we would conserve precious energy.

Or, keep rowing.

We took the tough decision and kept rowing, adapting our shift pattern and working together. For 42 hours we made no progress, moving less than half a mile across the ocean. Tired and disheartened, finally the storm passed over us, and we made the call to our support team by satellite phone.

‘Whatever you’ve been doing, keep doing it” they said. “Everyone else has gone backwards [they all put out their sea anchor], and you are now 30 miles in front!”

Forty days later, we crossed the finish line, winning in world record time. Our winning margin? Just over 30 miles!

Our ability to understand what motivates you and those you work with, and an aligned focus on the purpose that brings your organisation together, can create an ultimate and sustainable competitive edge.

At the annual HRINZ conference I took people on a journey of how my expedition crews (or teams in the corporate jungle) have used motivation theory to support talent management, leadership development, and the informal conversations that help build the fabric of your culture. I’ll touch on the research, and what Kevin and I talked about on the ocean that made us choose to row.

Lack of motivation can take on different forms for adventurers. For ocean rowers it’s slower boat speed, or for polar explorers it means setting up the tent before you’ve reached your daily milestone. Gallup estimates that disengaged workers cost companies over $350 billion per year in lost productivity. On the other hand, though, when workers are motivated employee retention is up 44%, accidents down by 50% and productivity up by 50%.

So how do you motivate your staff or fellow adventurer? Money? Interestingly, research is increasingly showing that financial incentives (or any reward contingent on performance) are not the most effective way to get the most out people.

How do you motivate your ocean rowers?

Back in 1960 a MIT professor Don McGregor suggested that there are two kinds of managers.

Theory X managers who believe that: “… people must be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment [and rewards] to get them to put forth adequate effort.”; and

Theory Y managers who believe that people are keen to work and, under the right conditions, willingly bring discretionary effort, ingenuity and creativity to the workplace.

Let’s be honest – Theory X does seem to make sense. After all how do you get people to do a little more? You provide them with incentives. You dangle a promotion prospect. You hold out a bonus. At the end of the day it all comes down to money – isn’t that why they come to work in the first place?

Providing people with contingent rewards do in many cases create a short term burst of effort towards a goal, sometimes with terrific results. However, research shows that these extrinsic motivators can come with nasty catches.

Contingent reward reduce performance
A London School of Economics analysis of 51 studies of corporate performance-pay plans concluded that financial incentives tend to result in a negative impact on company performance. It appears where people are given external incentives to produce results they focus on short-term gains and quick wins, instead of innovative and sustainable solutions.

Contingent rewards become addictive
Several studies show that paying people to exercise, stop smoking, or take their medicines produces great results, but people will only do just enough to get the reward and no more, and that compliance stops once the incentives are removed. Just like junkies the dose of reward has to be progressively increased for it to have a similar motivating effect.

Contingent rewards extinguish intrinsic motivation
You might think that paying people in the short term to do a task might provide a ‘kick-start’ after which their own motivation would take over. However studies show that contingent rewards can turn play into work. Children who love to draw actually draw less if given an incentive. Paying people to donate blood results in fewer donations. They can also encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviour.

Where does that leave us?

A fair salary is still important to avoid demotivation
If you don’t pay people enough, an amount that is considered fair, you don’t get motivation. The key is to pay people enough so that money is off the table.• Non-tangible contingent rewards are still very effective

Praise and recognition is very effective to improve mood and motivation. Mostly because it gives feedback – and staff crave feedback. So do ocean rowers – almost as much as fresh fruit and a work desk that doesn’t have waves crashing over top of you.

Carrots and sticks work on routine, rule based work
The ‘Theory X’ manager inside us believes in carrots and sticks. These work well when the work is dull and routine and there is no need to be creative or think laterally – like stuffing envelopes or putting caps on toothpaste tubes. Otherwise carrots and sticks can come with unhelpful side effects.

Unleashing intrinsic motivation into your ‘rowing boat’

To create and maintain intrinsic motivation in your team or those you influence you need to provide three main ingredients.

  • A sense of Purpose
  • A sense of Autonomy over their work
  • A feeling of Mastery and Progress

These aren’t the only motivators, and they will apply differently to different people, but these research-based principles (upon reflection) relate to our conversation as we deciding to either put out the sea anchor or keep rowing. They were also central to my training of the 7000 Rugby World Cup 2011 volunteers, and relate to our cultural alignment and leadership development work we deliver with clients.

1. Purpose – “Why are we out here on the ocean again?”

Let’s do a thought experiment. I have a job for you. Keep turning this crank that goes through the wall here for the rest of the day and in return I will pay you some amount we both agree is fair. OK?

After two hours of cranking you’re feeling a little tired (and curious) so you ask the foreman nearby what the crank is doing on the other side of the wall. Watch how your enthusiasm changes depending on the answer he tells you:

  • “It’s connected to nothing. You’re part of a modern art installation.”
  • “It powers the rack in the dungeon.”
  • “It’s connected to a well that raises water for an orphanage.”
  • “Who knows? – get back to work!”

Managers and organisations tell me that they have a ‘vision’ or ‘mission statement’, but to me these things describe where the company is going. Your purpose describes why. The better someone understands the value they’re ultimately providing their customer, the more they can make better decisions about helping the company deliver it.

Our purpose on the boat? We were committed to finding out what our bodies were capable of. Resting wasn’t going help us find out!

2. Autonomy – “What’s my role in getting us to the finish line?”

While out on the ocean, Kevin and I ‘presented’ our ideas to one another with edits to our shift pattern, and the direction into the storm that we rowed. We kept asking for feedback and reviewed our tactics as we carried on.

Creativity, ownership and responsibility increase when you give people more control over:

  • Task – What they do;
  • Time – When they do it;
  • Team – Who they do it with;
  • and Technique – How they do it.

Encouraging autonomy doesn’t mean that the people are less accountable. In fact it’s the opposite. Employees are held directly accountable for achieving their targets – there is just less direction on how they do it.

Autonomy helps create a sense of responsibility and personal ownership. Results from a recent CIPD survey show that the number one reason why people give extra at work was because of a sense of responsibility.

3. Mastery and Progress – “How will we get there?”

The top motivator at work is progress – a sense of forward momentum. On days when workers EITHER have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or, when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak. No other workday event has more influence on motivation.

Also, managers that have the highest engagement scores are reported by staff to be doing the following things

  • “encourages me to use my talents”
  • “delegates assignments effectively”
  • “treats me like an individual with unique interests and needs”

Research shows that topping the list of job satisfaction are “career development opportunities and training”. Similarly research shows the main reason people leave their job is because “I don’t have the opportunities to grow and advance here”. Yet only about half of companies provide a clear career and training pathway.

Of course the actual language we used during the storm was sometimes a little less publishable than what I’ve given today, but when we reflected on our success after six weeks at sea and wondered why every other crew put out the sea anchor, it was worth some pondering. But there is a message here for us all. Each of us is on our own path, facing our own unique storms. How often are we using our own experiences to learn from, leverage each others strengths, and help us become better? Perhaps the only thing more important than that is… keep rowing!

Recommended reading relating to this article

  • Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates us – Dan Pink
  • Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution – Ressler and Thompson
  • Punished by Rewards – Alfie Kohn
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Carol Dweick
  • CIPD Survey report 2010. Shared Purpose: The Golden Thread?
  • First Break All the Rules: Marcus Buckingham
See all posts