From a neuroscience perspective, motivation involves 3 neural processes, as described in The Neuroscience of Motivation: An Overview. In this article we’re going to look at influencing the first process in that chain – reward anticipation.
Motivation serves as an impetus to act to gain a reward or prevent a loss. Reward anticipation is the first process of motivation and is based in the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, a network that includes the ventral tegmental area, amygdala, caudate, putamen and nucleus accumbens, and is directly associated with pleasure and learning.
The bigger the potential reward or loss, the greater the anticipation, and the greater the effort, attention, risk, energy or other sacrifices that will be made. The smaller the potential reward or loss, the less time, effort and attention it will attract. So that part is simple – anticipation of big rewards and losses are more motivating than anticipation of inconsequential rewards or losses. So how do you motivate yourself or someone else? Easy – change the anticipated reward or loss – or both!
But can it be that simple?
In a word, yes. And no.
If the reward (as a gain or avoided loss) is closely connected to intrinsic motivations (things that we are driven toward at a mostly non-conscious level) or specific goals (things we consciously identify as a preferred act or outcome), anticipation, and therefore likely sacrifice, is generally high. If the reward is unclear or disconnected from our interests, drives and goals, expect reward anticipation, and therefore likely sacrifice, to be low. You could say that “lazy” employees simply don’t associate the type and level of effort you hope for with fulfilment of their motivational drives, consciously or non-consciously. For them, the reward on offer doesn’t live up to the sacrifice.
At work, the answer looks simple – to motivate people, offer them higher rewards, probably as money, promotion or something else like that. Or, if you want to work on anticipated loss as motivation, increase the penalties for poor performance or behaviour. Does that sound terrible and ineffective? Well, considering the legal system works exactly that way, compliance-coercion is effective in controlling behaviours for most people most of the time, whether they like it or not.
But, if you want more than basic compliance, you need to look at more than avoidance of loss. (Also, not turning up to work, through avoiding responsibility, absenteeism or resignation (flight response), or of blaming, cheating or forming resistant coalitions to combat coercive hierarchical power (fight response), are other ways of avoiding loss instead of compliance.)
There is also a problem with upping extrinsic rewards such as wages, salaries, bonuses and so on. Extrinsic rewards and penalties (ones that are imposed by others), can only motivate to the extent that they apply. For example, if you achieve X, I will reward you with $Y. The advantage is that goal X and reward Y are black and white, and, with a bigger reward anticipated, is likely to put in more effort – but only to the extent required for the reward. This can be useful for focusing effort and attention, especially on specific short-term, simple tasks and goals. But don’t expect any more sacrifice or performance than compliance if cash is the only reward. Instead, what you can expect as a “bonus” is effort and attention put toward ways of achieving the same reward for less effort, which may include lying, cheating, blaming others and reductions in other areas. For example, if you incentivise (as a bonus to gain or loss to be avoided) quantity, expect quality to drop, if you incentivise sales volume, expect margins or ethics to drop, and so on.
Another problem for extrinsic rewards that are routinely anticipated is that not qualifying for the bonus, rather than being a neutral result, can easily feel like a loss. For example, the employee reaction when a business that normally gives annual pay rises, Christmas bonuses or parties chooses not to do so one year – employees feel cheated. The employee who feels they deserved a 5% pay rise but is awarded a 3% increase feels they have lost 2%. This pay rise (extrinsic reward) was demotivational!
To make this worse, if the “bonus” is routine, it no longer attracts the same dopamine hit that it used to, with decreased learning / reinforcement, so where rewards become habitual, they largely lose the benefit they were intended to have as pleasure AND AS A MOTIVATOR OF FUTURE EFFORT! In contrast, meaningful UNEXPECTED rewards have a much bigger impact, supporting big dopamine hits and accelerating learning (gambling leverages this mechanism) – but in the workplace they need to be fair and transparent too.
So where does that leave us?
To motivate people (self or others) we need to increase anticipated rewards and/or penalties. But if we increase penalty anticipation the very best we can hope for is compliance. And if we up the extrinsic reward (pay, bonuses, promotion etc) we are likely to increase motivation… temporarily and only to a achieve compliance, not optimisation. And we may end up doing more harm than good to motivation over the medium to long term when rewards become routine and expected. Oh, and as a kicker, increasing extrinsic rewards and penalties often decrease cooperation, fulfilment and well-being BUT unscheduled, overtly fair extrinsic rewards can be very rewarding and motivate similar future behaviours and efforts (it’s a better investment vs impact sum). How is your current incentive system looking so far?
So how do we motivate people in specific directions in a sustainable way?
Goal-oriented motivation is commonly effective if the goal is tangible, meaningful and personally significant. This means that we can envisage and imagine a clear picture of what the outcome is, how it will feel and what difference to would make to our lives and others we care about. For example, a happily married and fulfilled person is less likely to stick at a tough gym and diet regime than a single person who feels something is missing from their life.
In this way, the key to sustained focused effort is in goal-oriented actions or outcomes that link closely with intrinsic, or basic, fulfilment needs. (In the dieting/gym example, primarily the needs of connection and identity). The key here is that the action leads directly to intrinsic fulfilment, and that it, in itself, is rewarding without the need for externally-imposed consequences. (Read more on intrinsic vs extrinsic rewards).
For managers, this means understanding that the most powerful motivations do not come from job descriptions, rules, salaries or bonus schemes. Rather they come from anticipation of the preservation or enhancement of intrinsic motivations, underpinned by safety and described for the workplace as Neurosmart®basic motivational needs. Visionary leaders, inspirational mentors and even dodgy motivational speakers tap into this quite well, often through appealing to the needs of connection and identity (e.g. “together, let’s create a better future”), or empowerment (e.g. “You can make a difference”) or simple task reward (e.g. “This is going to be a lot of fun”).
Some manipulative leaders and advertisers also throw in fear (e.g. “They will raise taxes”, “They won’t secure our borders”, or “Your house is full of deadly germs”, “You will die and leave your family with a funeral bill they can’t afford and will forever hate you”), before throwing out the anticipation of gain from the imaginary seed of anticipated loss that they so carefully planted. They are unashamed in recognising safety, even more so than basic motivational needs, as the strongest motivator of behaviour.
So, to increase motivation, the most effective and reliable method is for links to be direct, strong and immediate with protecting or enhancing safety and basic need fulfilment, whether expressed as deeply felt and specific goals, or only held non-consciously. For example, if a person associates being friendly, courtesy and cooperative with anticipation of connection fulfilment, they are likely to act in that way. If a person anticipates that quality and achievement in their work will be rewarded with continued or enhanced recognition, respect and gratitude, they are likely to focus on those things.
An example might be where a manager wants someone to stretch themselves and take on an important challenge. The employee’s reward anticipation system estimates the possibility of gain linked to feelings of achievement, respect, enhanced social status, competence, novelty and perhaps working closely with others. But there is also the prospect of loss – what if the project fails? What are the prospects of blame, shame, feelings of incompetence, of being overwhelmed and letting others down? How terrible will that make me feel?
The manager can easily influence positive, healthy, productive, fulfilling gain-oriented (approach schema) motivation by increasing reward anticipation through amplifying the vision, opportunity, benefits and chances of success, while decreasing loss anticipation by adding in a safety net of access to advice, resources, expertise and help, with no shame for asking, if the employee feels it is required (support is ideal but micromanagement is to disempower and demotivate) – perhaps personally. This, in a thoroughly practical sense, is what effective, healthy, productive and sustainable everyday motivation looks like in the workplace. Do this! And get your management team to do this too!
Effects on future motivation
Simply, if an employee puts in more effort, and receives more fulfilment as a reward, they are likely to continue with higher effort in anticipation of similarly high future fulfilment IRRESPECTIVE OF EXTRINSIC REWARDS – but only to the extent that they are as fulfilled in each area of basic need as they are uniquely driven to be. When an employee puts in the effort, as they perceive it, but doesn’t receive the reward they anticipated, their anticipation reward mechanism quickly learns, and they are consequently likely to put in less effort next time – or leave to find fulfilment elsewhere. Yes, high effort employees are also likely to be more demanding of time, attention, respect, appreciation, competence, autonomy and so on. If you aren’t prepared to put some time and focus into rewarding your high performers in some or all of those ways, expect to lose them.
*Note – Our research, & the fundamentals of neuroplasticity, suggests that although motivation in each area of basic need appears to be relatively stable in adulthood, significant and repeated anticipation violations, where rewards were higher or lower than expected, appear to impact the expectation. For example, some employees who have felt repeatedly mistreated but unable to change employer, or have had a string of unsatisfactory employment situations, score very poorly across all motivations due to continual non-fulfilment. This is also often seen in the basic need of connection in supervisors and line managers, where constant interactions are almost always accompanied by pressure and problems from above and below. As a result, they quickly come to associate people at work as a source of distress, feeling overwhelmed by just the thought of them and adjusting their motivation and ideal fulfilment levels downwards. They are motivated not by protecting or enhancing their current levels of connection fulfilment, but by reducing it to match their retrained need level – you will often see this where a manager or supervisor decides to make a “backwards” career change to return to a role where there is less responsibility and fewer interaction with others.
For recruiters, the lesson is to hire people whose are most likely be capable of meeting the practical demands of the role AND most likely be feel safe and be motivated and intrinsically fulfilled by the workplace, its purpose, goals, ethics, practices, team, culture, tasks and manager. Don’t put a superstar into a role where they won’t get the opportunities, recognition or support they crave. And don’t put a low-anticipation, low-effort person into a challenging, or probably even autonomous, environment. (NeuroSmart® Candidate Assessments measure motivation need and fulfilment across all four basic needs – our clients find this information very useful as a guide to likely engagement and fulfilment.) And then make sure the extrinsic stuff (pay, hours and other tangible rewards) is sorted and out of the way so as not to be an issue.
For managers the lesson is to understand how motivation for basic need fulfilment is expressed within individual employees (e.g., friendship vs respect, achievement versus detail, ideas versus compliance, fitting in versus standing out), and then to attend to the things that matter for them at group and individual levels. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort for the manager to do this if they know what those levels are and how they are expressed, especially if they take the time to be de-centred (i.e., focus on the employee’s needs) at crucial times (linked to EQ). For example, I speak to LOTS of blue-collar workers, and the things they want most, as well as income security, are inclusion and friendship (linked to connection), skill advancement, access to information and autonomy (linked to empowerment), honest feedback and recognition for good work (linked to identity), and enjoyable, varied and challenging work (linked to task reward).
The patterns from our research here are very consistent – where an employee was forced to leave a job through redundancy, fulfilment levels were typically very high across all basic needs. Ideally, they would love to re-engage in a new role that offers pretty much the same effort for reward balance. And where an employee reported being unhappy, fulfilment of basic workplace needs is always low – with NO connection to money as the core motivator for change unless there was a perceived misrepresentation or an unexpected drop such as a dramatic cut in rostered hours.
What about both?
Viewed simplistically, why not simply reward with conditional bonuses AND some compliments? Why not fulfil basic needs AND fill the wallet? Sounds the safe way to go, doesn’t it? Well, there are two problems with that broad-brush approach. Firstly, it is expensive with no guarantee of a return beyond basic compliance for simple, effort-based, tasks (1,2,3), and that’s no pathway to employee engagement or high organisational performance. Secondly, research (4,5,6) where people who did something for the love of it (intrinsic motivation, basic need fulfilment) were then paid to do the same thing saw extrinsic motivation go up. However, intrinsic motivation reduced, likely through perceptions of loss of internalisation, control and autonomy. Effort shifted from “I’m in control of what I do and how I do it, and the harder I work, the more I get out of it” to “I’m not in (as much) control of what I do or how I do it, I have to do this”, with the shifting from engagement to compliance.
In the workplace, of course, it is not OK to not pay people fairly, according to their, and society’s expectations, even if the work is inherently fulfilling for them. To not do so is a breach of trust. And to underpay someone is an attack on their identity, as the message is that you don’t value them as much as their peers are valued. So get that bit right and then get it out of the way.
A useful starting point for sustained and healthy motivation, and indeed engagement and fulfilment, is this:
- Recruit employees whose intrinsic motivations, in balance, extent and expression, are well-matched to the capacity of the role and workplace environment to fulfil them in ways that are compatible with “ideal” effort, behaviour and performance. In this way, felt rewards have the potential to support or enhance those anticipated, in turn preventing upsetting and demotivating reward anticipation violations.
- Design and manage roles, tasks, projects and workgroups in ways that support frequent opportunities for employees to meet or exceed the organisation’s performance and behavioural requirements, as well as their basic needs of connection, empowerment, identity and task reward within a physically, mentally and socially safe workplace environment. In this way, reward realization positively impacts future reward anticipation, in turn reinforcing or increasing motivation and effort.
- Influence motivation positively in a way that supports capacity and well-being by amplifying anticipated (intrinsic) rewards while reducing the likelihood, impact or influence of anticipated losses, especially perceived threats to personal, social or psychological safety. In this way, greater and sustained positive effort and focus is likely to see better commitment, resilience, cognitive capacity, performance, fulfilment and well-being.
- Be careful when using tangible rewards or penalties (as reward anticipation) for task-specific motivation (rather than general boundaries), as you might get compliance, especially for a short while, but you won’t get more than that or probably longer than that. It’s also likely to be detrimental to fulfilment, well-being, engagement and retention.
References on impacts of extrinsic vs intrinsic rewards
1. Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on extrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668
2. McGraw, K.O., McCulliers, J.C. (1979). Evidence of a detrimental effect of extrinsic motivations on breaking a mental set. Journal of experimental social psychology, 15, 285-294
3. Erez, M., Gopher, D., Arzi, N. (1990). Effects of goal difficulty, self-set goals, and monetary rewards on dual task performance. Organisational behaviour and human decision processes, 47, 247-269
4. Fabes, R.A., Fultz, J., Eisenberg, N., May-Plumlee, T., Christopher, F.S. (1898). Effects of rewards on children’s pro-social motivation: A socialization study. Developmental psychology, 25, 509-515
5. Kunda, Z., Schwartz, S.H. (1983). Undermining intrinsic moral motivation: External reward and self-presentation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 45, 763-771
6. Upton, W.E.III. (1974). Altruism, attribution and intrinsic motivation in the recruitment of blood donors. In Selected readings in donor recruitment (Vol 2, pp 7-38). Washington DC: American national Red Cross