How to Motivate: Remind, Don’t Reward.

Motivation is the fuel people need to achieve their goals. But sometimes you’re confident that you know how to motivate your team when in fact you’re doing the exact opposite.

Take the case of incentives. It might make sense to reward the person that delivers the fastest, spends the lowest, or logs the most hours. But often, this tactic backfires and tanks productivity while also discouraging collaboration and quality work.

Why Rewards Backfire

There are a few reasons why dangling rewards often doesn’t work. The first is because it shifts the focus from the work to the reward. The result is that your team may try to earn the reward any which way possible. They can “game” the system. 

The second reason is that this usually doesn’t work in the long run. When the reward runs out, studies have found that people actually do worse than if they weren’t given rewards in the first place. So you’ll need to offer the reward again and again just to maintain productivity. It’s like an arms race where people get wily to the rules of the game. You need to both maintain the reward and safeguard the rules. That’s not a productive use of your time, I assure you.

Third and last, rewards aren’t one size fits all. You might think that everyone wants money. In reality, people want the things that money affords them. It can be escape from debt, time off with the family, freedom to pursue pet projects, and a host of other things. Sometimes, a cash reward might even be a demotivator. Instead of seeing their career as a personal pursuit, some might simply be working to earn their keep and maintain a pay grade.

How to Motivate: You Must Remind Your Team of Their Why Instead

Remember the charismatic leaders of our time: Gandhi, JFK, Churchill. They never dangled rewards in front of their people to get things done. What they did was remind people why they wanted to achieve a goal in the first place.

The “why” is what connects the goal to the person’s personal values. It both makes the pursuit of the goal personal as well as relevant. Rewards are fun, I admit, but they’re only as good as the next reward. What you want is something that will connect with your team at their core.

But how do you do this, exactly?

  1. Get to know your team. Why did they come to work for you? What’s important to them? Find out what makes them want to get up each morning and brave the commute to the office.
  2. Connect your team project goals to their personal values. People have all sorts of reasons why they join a project. It can be to further their career, learn new things, or make an impact. The question now is: does their work on the project reinforce and promote these reasons?
  3. Remind your team of their “why” once in a while. It’s inevitable that people will feel disconnected to a project after a stressful day or when faced with seemingly impossible challenges. Your role as a leader is to nudge them back to the team focus by telling them why they signed up in the first place.

Motivate your team by showing progress. On top of telling them about their “why”, you should also make sure they know that the project is progressing. Your team needs to know that their effort isn’t in vain and that you’ll reach the goal together in the end.

And that is the secret to staying motivated. Remind, don’t reward. 

Want to learn more about how rewards work? Here’s a short article from us talking about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.