Why External Motivation, Cash, Promises or Punishment Won’t Motivate Your Employees

If you or your organization have been relying on external motivation to keep your employees engaged and satisfied, I encourage you to reconsider your thinking. Here’s the truth: External motivation does work. Using external motivators — like more money, coveted promotions, threats of punishment or implied promises of good things to come — does change behaviors in the short-term. Unfortunately, it normally doesn’t change habits over the long haul. Let’s talk about why that approach doesn’t work so well and what you can do to make employee motivation last.

Why External Motivation, Cash, Promises or Punishment Won’t Motivate Your Employees

I graduated college about four decades ago. In my business classes I was taking back at Murray State University the question was asked and discussed at length: How do you motivate people? Well, after I left those hallowed halls of higher education at Murray State University, I went immediately into the business world where I have worked until today.

The Never Ending Question: How Do I Motivate My People?

Almost every day for the last 40 years I’ve been in contact with, direct contact with, and oftentimes in direct communication with managers, supervisors, executives of all sizes, shapes, and demeanors. It’s amazing how many times that conversation I first heard back in college continues to be asked the question, how do I motivate people, and discussed at length even today.

Internal Motivation vs. External Motivation

Well, I want to talk about motivation. In fact, I want to talk about two types of motivation: internal motivation and external motivation with more of a focus on external motivation for our purposes here today. Let me simply say that I believe in motivation — I believe in motivation in a big way. I believe people are motivated, but I don’t believe they’re necessarily motivated by what you or I may want them to be motivated by.

Internal motivation comes from within the individual. Internal motivation is based on attitude and values. It’s determining what I want and need and what I’m willing to sacrifice to accomplish those things. Those are things that I do in my heart, in my head, in my being, and I believe they are motivational, but for many of us, those of us in leadership positions, managers, supervisors, executives of all kinds, quite frankly, that takes too long. It takes too long for me to get to know each individual and figure out individually what motivates him or her.

External Motivation Is Only a Short-Term Fix

Instead, over the years, organizations have tried to rush the process, and we’ll call that external motivation. External motivation is something that happens from without outside of the individual to change the inside of the individual. Well, it’s nice to talk about. Unfortunately, it just rarely happens. External motivation is something that an organization can provide that an individual or an organization can provide for another individual in hopes that what we’re providing, externally giving them, will actually motivate them.

Well, here’s the truth: External motivation does work. External motivators do change behaviors in the short-term. Unfortunately, it normally doesn’t change habits over the long-term. External motivation may make a manager or a supervisor feel a feel good in the moment, but the individual, the individual is still trying to determine is this, will this help me satisfy my needs and wants and desires and all those other things long-term? Oftentimes they don’t.

(Let us help you with a plan to motivate your employees for the long-haul. Call us now.)

That doesn’t change the fact that organizations still want to change behaviors of individuals, so they continue to explore or experiment with different external motivators. I want to give you three to talk about today. Now, remember, I said external motivators will change behavior, individual behavior in the short-term, they just don’t last long-term, and number two, I said that external motivators are provided by the organization or individuals representing the organization.

3 Common Forms of External Motivation

Let’s talk about the three primary external motivators that you see in organizations today. The first one and probably the most obvious one is what I’ll refer to as rewards. Rewards. Now, a lot of people go, “Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s money.” Well, money is a reward. There’s no question about that, but it’s not the only reward. There can be other rewards like benefits, and there can be opportunity, promotion. Status and prestige — these are also rewards, but they’re only a reward if a person values those things. Believe it or not, not everybody works for money.

Oh, they accept a check, and they’re happy to get it, but that net may not be the primary motivator for one employee, money, whereas it may be the primary motivator for another, so if it’s a primary motivator for one, and we say, “We’re going to give you more money,” certainly they’re going to change their behavior, but if money is not the primary motivator, they’ll take your money, but probably the behaviors won’t change that very much.

The Beatles Were Right… “Can’t Buy Me Love”

Here’s another thing that I always tell people about rewards. No organization, none, I don’t care how profitable or how asset-laden that organization may be, no organizations has pockets deep enough to be able to continue to motivate people with money alone. Here’s the reason why: As soon as you give me some, I’ll be happy with that and thankful for it, and maybe I’ll even change my behavior in the short-term, but eventually, I want more. If you motivate me once and you condition me to expect that by way of money, then I’ll just want more money before I do more. After a while, that gets to be a tremendous… well, almost a dead end loop. Most organizations can’t continue to throw money at a problem. They have to find another way to motivate people.

Threats of Punishment

Another external motivation, when money either doesn’t work or can’t work long-term, well, this is a common one. We’ll simply call it threats. Now, some people refer to this external motivation approach as being a threat of punishment or punishment itself, but I would argue threats are far more prevalent than the actual punishment.

I mean, if you’re a parent or grandparent or you’ve been around one lately, how many times have you heard this conversation parent to child, grandparent to child, “Hey, hey, I’m going to discipline you if you don’t stop that.” Well, punishment? No. It was a threat of punishment.

Then what happens to the child? Well, the child just looks at him and continues to do whatever. “Now, I mean it this time. I’m really going to punish you this time if you continue to do that.” Well, the child continues to do it, and the punishment ever comes. The threat is what we’re attempting to motivate, externally motivate the individual.

Are You Really Willing to Be Swift and Severe?

Now, will punishment work? Well, that’s debatable. You can talk to all kinds of sociologists about the value of corporal or the value of punishment of one type or another, but even the most die-hard individuals who are against punishment will tell you the only way for punishment to work is it must be swift and severe. Swift and severe, and because most people either can’t or won’t follow through with swift and severe punishment, they fall back on the threat of punishment.

Now, will the threat of punishment motivate someone? Yeah. Remember what I said, temporarily short-term. External motivation will motivate temporarily and short-term, but for how long? Well, until number one, it’s obvious that the punishment will not come, it’s just a threat, but then number two, here’s an interesting thing:

When you threatened someone, then quite frankly, they look for an opportunity to get even with you. In other words, when you try to impress upon them and get them to do something by way of a threat, they start thinking about, “How can I get even with you because of how uncomfortable you’ve made me.”

Have you motivated that person? Yes, probably, but not in the way that you wanted. In fact, they’re not focused on what to do well. They were focused on how to get even. It’s an interesting thought.

Rewards & Threats

There are two of the three, two of the three external motivations. There is rewards. Will it motivate? Yeah, temporarily and short-term, but reinforcing it becomes difficult. The second one was threats. A punishment. Will threat’s a punishment motivate? Well, for some they will, but it may actually motivate them to do things that you don’t want them to do. What’s the third type of external motivation that organizations and individuals oftentimes fall back on? What’s the one that’s hardest for people to recognize, and yet I would argue, and to some degree, it’s the most common. What is it? Promises. Promises.

Promises

Now, you may not have thought about this one, so take just a minute to process this. Promise. Will a promise motivate someone to do something? Well, I would argue, yes, temporarily and in the short-term. Why? Because if I promise you, “If you do this, then you’ll get that,” well, if what I’m going to get is something that’s very desirable, then okay, thank you, I appreciate the promise, and that promise will continue to motivate until one of two things happen. Either you actually get what you want, and then you have to make another promise to get me to do more, or worse still, I don’t get what you promised. In other words, you promised it, but you didn’t follow through on the promise.

Do Your Employees Believe “Everything’s Going to Be Fine”

By the way, there’s such a thing that’s called implied promises. Now, this is where you don’t actually say, “I promise you blank,” but you imply that a promise is being made. For example, how many times have you heard a manager say something like this, “Keep working hard. I’m going to take care of you,” or what about this one, “Don’t worry, you’re next on the list,” or how about this one, “Trust me, everything’s going to work out fine. Just count on me.”

Implied Promises

Now, in none of those three situations did I actually say, “I promise you you’ll get this,” or, “I promise you this will end up that way,” but I certainly implied it in all three of those situations. If one or more of those three things do not happen, then who’s held accountable for it? Well, of course, the person who’s made that promise or that implied promise, and he or she is held responsible by the person who was expecting to get something as a result of the implied promise that was made.

In any event, if the behavior is changed, it’s probably only changed temporarily and for a short term period of time, but if the promise is not kept, then the relationship could be damaged simply because I don’t trust you anymore. You promised me. You did not follow through on it. I can’t trust you.

Instead of External Motivation Think about This

External motivation. It’s an interesting concept, and it’s one, as I said, that’s been talked about for decades, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be talked about for decades to come. We’re talking about it right now. I want you to think about it. I want you to think about how motivation actually works and how you can, in fact, help an individual stay motivated by trying to figure out what their actual needs are, what their actual wants are, what’s happening internal to them instead of just depending upon external motivation. I think you’d be better for it. I think they’ll appreciate you, and I know these are the kinds of things that leaders ought to know.

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Phillip Van Hooser
Author: Phillip Van Hooser
Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on leadership, service and communication. His popular book, “Willie's Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty” recently hit #1 in Customer Relations on the Kindle store. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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