It was interesting last week to hear Dan Pink’s take on motivation at the HRIZON conference in Melbourne. His basic proposition on motivation was:

  • Money is a fundamental motivator, but more doesn’t equal better – making sure that people are paid enough and have a sense that they are fairly paid, takes money, as an issue, off the table
  • Once that’s done, the three key motivators are autonomy, mastery and purpose – he relies on the work of Teresa Amabile in particular to make this point. (I wrote a while back on Amabilie’s work on progress and still consider her research and models some of the most helpful in the work that I do with leaders.)

In relation to more doesn’t equal better, Pink cited a US Federal Reserve Bank article by Ariely, Gneezy, Loewenstein & Mazar that examined the impact of incentive schemes on performance, specifically focusing on whether or not excessive rewards can cause a decline rather than an increase in performance. And yes, they found that sometimes high levels of reward can be detrimental to performance.

Beyond some threshold level, increasing incentives to a very high level compared with normal income, can increase motivation beyond that which is optimal, paradoxically diminishing performance. Ariely et al remind us of the Yerkes-Dodson law, which dates back to 1908 and is consistent with what they found.

Their key finding was that tasks that are simple and involve only effort (physical, repetitive tasks) are more likely to benefit from higher incentives whereas tasks that are more complex, involving cognitive processing (knowledge work), have a level beyond which increasing incentives has detrimental effects. (diag. from

A prolific researcher in the field of motivation, Adam Grant, takes this further by stating in a recent journal article that there is no such thing as an unmitigated good. “All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits”, demonstrating time and time again the prevalence of the ‘inverted U’.



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