I’ve recently been pondering how to motivate workers. I’m mostly interested in how to motivate volunteers in a nonprofit organization — a “cause”. Just a day after writing about it, I found a section in Made to Stick with good insight:
We may mistakenly think that people are motivated by the pursuit of baser needs, while we ourselves are motivated by loftier ideals. The book calls this living in the penthouse of Maslow’s pyamid while believing others live in the basement.
Imagine that a company offers its employees a $1,000 bonus if they meet certain performance targets. There are three different ways of presenting the bonus to the employees:
- Think of what that $1,000 means: a down payment on a new car or that new home improvement you’ve been wanting to make.
- Think of the increased security of having that $1,000 in your bank account for a rainy day.
- Think of what the $1,000 means: the company recognizes how important you are to its overall performance. It doesn’t spend money for nothing.
When people are asked which positioning would appeal to them personally, most of them say No. 3….
Here’s the twist, though: When people are asked which is the best positioning for other people (not them), they rank No. 1 most fulfilling, followed by No. 2. That is, we are motivated by self-esteem, but others are motivated by down payments. This single insight explains almost everything about the way incentives are structured in most large organizations. (Made to Stick, pp. 184-85)
So, the question isn’t just whether or not to give an incentive or bonus, but also how to present it.
If you’re motivated by a cause, an incentive may even offend you. When firefighters were offered a free copy of a safety video to review, they readily accepted it. When offered a free popcorn popper as a thank you for reviewing the safety video, one firefighter said, “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@%! popcorn popper?!” (p. 188)