Motivation – a refresher..eight years on..

By Elisabeth Goodman, 28th July 2017

Motivation – a refresher

Eight years ago, in July 2009, Dan Pink gave an impassioned TED talk on “The puzzle of motivation”.  It was a rallying call to business to stop using a scientifically proven outmoded method for incentivising high performance – the “carrot and stick”, “if…then”, “extrinsic reward” model.  The concept is that: if you pay people more, they will perform better!  He argued that it does not work, and yet we are still using it!

Dan Pink – The puzzle of motivation. 2009 TED talk 

More recently, the June issue of The Training Journal, carried an article by Pierre Casse and Artem Konstandian on “The art of motivating”.  They state that “The ability to motivate is the beating heart of powerful, effective leadership.”

As motivation is one of the most popular topics in my management training courses with RiverRhee, this seemed like a perfect moment for a refresher on the topic.

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Extrinsic vs intrinsic motivators

Dan Pink used two different scenarios for the candle problem to illustrate how paying people more (an extrinsic motivator) does not necessarily lead to better performance.

In the first scenario, candidates are given a candle, matches, and a box filled with drawing pins.  As the solution to the problem is to use the box, solving it requires, quite literally, “out of the box” thinking: cognitive skills.


In the second scenario, the drawing pins have been taken out of the box, so using it is a lot more obvious.  The task is more mechanistic: a simple question of using the materials as they have been laid out to solve the problem.

Offering money as an extrinsic motivator for solving the problem more quickly proves more effective in the second, more mechanistic scenario, than in the first, more cognitive one.

Dan Pink reminds us that most of the work that we do, in science, in business, in service organisations, requires more cognitive skills.  Once people have been paid enough to take this issue ‘off the table’, then paying people more has been shown to lead to poorer performance!  It dulls thinking and blocks creativity. And yet we keep on using this ‘carrot and stick’ extrinsic reward model to incentivise people.

The intrinsic motivators that Dan Pink describes so graphically, here and elsewhere, are those of autonomy, mastery and purpose.  People are motivated to do things “because they matter”.  They can direct their own work, can get better at what they do, and are doing something for a reason that is greater than themselves.

To what extent can, and do organisations provide the environment for people to tap into these intrinsic motivators?

Which brings me to the second key message for this refresher on motivation…

“One does not motivate people, people motivate themselves”

Pierre Casse and Artem Konstandian’s article in The Training Journal emphasises the role of leaders in creating the environment in which people can motivate themselves.

They suggest that leaders can create this environment in a number of ways, for instance by:

  • Making the reason why they require people to perform at a certain level: “what’s in it for me (or them)”
  • Highlighting what level of performance is expected
  • Providing the right amount and medium for recognition
  • Showing that they genuinely care about and are sensitive to their team members’ personal lives.  (Empathy is a theme I’ve explored before..)

They also put a big emphasis on trust as a motivator.  Leaders build trust through their behaviour: humility rather than egocentricity, acknowledging their mistakes and turning them into opportunities, standing up for their team, creating a pride in belonging.

Although Casse and Konstandian do not mention Pink’s intrinsic motivators (autonomy, mastery, purpose) by name, they are certainly implied by their call to leaders to give employees the space and conditions to develop and be at their best.

What are you and your leaders doing to promote trust, and to create the space and conditions for people to motivate themselves?


Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.) Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. 

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.