If we are honest, our everyday knowledge of motivation is almost like a collection of myths. They are stories, experiences and anecdotes passed down to us. Classic examples are: “some people are only in it for the money” or “carrots and sticks are the most important tools of a leader”. But how much truth is statements like these?
As it turns out, despite the monumental importance of motivation, most of us have never been taught how it actually works, based on current scientific understanding.
Well, we want to help you unravel the concept of motivation and give you a framework that can help you create a motivating environment where people want to bring their best selves to work and apply themselves to the best of their abilities.
Two kinds of performance
In a work context, we care about motivation because it affects performance. And exactly at this point we need to make a crucial distinction before we can dive into motivation.
And that distinction is between tactical performance and adaptive performance.
Tactical performance means following the plan or strategy with little thinking involved. Think of it like cooking with a recipe. You do not know why you should add the onion in step 4, but you don’t need to know as long as the plan (i.e. the recipe) is well thought out.
Adaptive performance means deviating from the plan, where creativity, innovativeness and improvisation is needed. Think of it like cooking freestyle with the ingredients you have in your fridge. Or adapting the recipe on the fly because you don’t have the onions required for step 4.
Good performance, for individuals and teams as well as organisations needs both. We need to be able to execute according to plan and strategy, but only following the plan is not realistic or useful – in fact adaptive performance gets more important the more VUCA your job or industry is. For the simple reason that planning, and predicting is less useful or feasible the more VUCA it gets.
As a quick example: How often have you made a to-do list in the morning and had to throw half of it out the window by 12 o’clock? Adapting the To-Do list on the fly according to updated priorities is adaptive performance. Simply following it despite the new circumstances would be tactical. The same holds true for following processes or a strategy.
Two kinds of motivation – direct motives
With this distinction, we can now look at motivation. Because one of the tricky things about motivation is that different motives affect the two kinds of performance differently.
So, you may be reinforcing tactical performance and harming adaptive performance at the same time.
And here is where we need to draw a second distinction. In this case, it is a distinction between two different kinds of motives – direct and indirect.
Let’s break these down.
Direct motives are called direct because they come directly from the task itself. They are called Play, Purpose and Potential. Play means doing a task just because you find it engaging. Purpose means that the immediate effect of the tasks are something you value. And Potential means that effects later down the road are something you value.
To give you an example for each: consider your favourite hobby. Why do you engage in it? For most of us, it is not because it necessarily makes the world a better place or has some other great effect, but because we enjoy the activity in itself. That is why Play is the most powerful direct motive. If there is strong Play in an activity (for you), Purpose and Potential would help, but you would probably do it regardless. For example, if you are a teacher and you enjoy engaging with students, creating lesson plans, etc.
For Purpose, it means that the outcome of your tasks is something you care about or value. So maybe you do not actually enjoy teaching by itself, but you put great stock in preparing the next generation for the challenges they will face. This is why purpose is the second strongest direct motive.
Potential means there are outcomes further down the road of your tasks that you value. For example, you may not enjoy your current job, or the effect it has, but it does teach you valuable skills and gives you a network you want to use to follow your passion: which might be founding a company in a certain field. This makes potential the direct motive with the smallest effect on performance.
Of course, these three motives are synergistic. The most motivating jobs are those that enable all three at the same time: the tasks are fulfilling in themselves, affect the world in a way that aligns with your values and teaches you valuable skills for later in life.
Two kinds of motivation: indirect motives
Let’s look at indirect motives next. Why are they called indirect? Because they do not have anything to do with the task themselves but instead come from indirect sources. They are called Emotional Pressure, Economic Pressure, and Inertia.
Emotional Pressure means I do something so I don’t feel bad. Economic pressure means I do something to gain a reward. And Inertia means I no longer remember why I do this, except that I did it last week. Again, let’s look at some concrete examples.
In the case of emotional pressure, you might practice the piano not because it is something you enjoy, or because you want to become a pianist, but instead because you do not want to disappoint your parents. Or you take a job because it has a lot of prestige, and you want to keep up with your friends. Or going to Thailand because you have strong FOMO after seeing all those influencer pictures on social media.
Of the three indirect motives, Emotional pressure has the least destructive impact on performance, because at least it has something to do with your values and your personality.
Economic pressure means you do your job not because of play, purpose, or potential, but because you need to pay your rent. Or you decide to keep a project for yourself that would be a better fit for your colleague, because your bonus is based on overall project volume. Mind you, this does not (necessarily) imply unethical or harmful behaviour, but rather that economic pressure can create painful trade-offs between individual interest and organisational interest.
This makes economic pressure the second most destructive indirect motive.
In the case of inertia, the direct motivators and other indirect motivators are so far removed that you’re really just showing up for work today because you showed up yesterday. Or following a bad process because changing it would take so long and so much effort that you feel it’s not worth it.
This makes inertial the indirect motive with the most destructive effect on performance.
How motives and performance interact
To summarize, there are two kinds of performance: adaptive and tactical. There are two types of motives: direct and indirect. Direct motives consist of play, purpose, and potential. Indirect motives consist of emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.
So now the question is, how do these concepts of performance and motives interact?
As it turns out, all 6 motives improve tactical performance. If I pay you to do X, you will do X (economic pressure). If X is enjoyable (play), you would probably do it anyway, and so on.
The complications start when you look at the effect on adaptive performance. High levels of direct motivation improve adaptive performance, but high levels of indirect motives reduce it.
This somewhat surprising claim – i.e. that indirect motivation actually lowers adaptive performance – is explained through three different mechanisms: the distraction effect, the cancellation effect, and the cobra effect.
Why and how indirect motives harm adaptive performance
First off, the distraction effect: this means that for adaptive tasks, indirect motives distract you from solving the problem. They make you want to solve it but thinking about them takes up mental resources. That big bonus that you keep thinking of if you develop a great and innovative idea (i.e. economic pressure)? That is mental energy that could be spent on actually developing said idea. Having to hold a big presentation in front of important stakeholders – a highly adaptive challenge – makes many of us so stressed out that we are forced to spend almost all of our mental capacity on being stressed (emotional pressure), instead of holding a great presentation.
Second, the cancellation effect: this means that direct motives can be cancelled out by indirect motives, thereby harming adaptive performance. And quite often, the direct motives don’t come back once you remove the indirect ones.
Imagine you would pay your child for each book she or he reads. Whatever direct motives there were before (enjoying reading, acquiring knowledge, diving into new worlds, having something to talk about with friends, etc.) will give way to a simple calculation: is this monetary reward worth my time and effort? And how can I minimize said time and effort? Your child may well choose to read the shortest books he or she can find, or skim the books as quickly as possible to get more rewards. I.e. your child will adopt a far more tactical performance stance. Even worse, if you then decide to remove the financial incentive, the calculation tends to stay the same. But now there is no reward, so why read at all?
Third, the cobra effect: this happens when indirect motives are so powerful, that we find the shortest route to alleviating the pressure, even if that harms the overall organisational goals. Well known examples where this was taken to its ultimate – and very public – conclusion, include the VW Dieselgate or Wells-Fargo account fraud scandal of 2016. Neither were a case of having hired hundreds of “bad apples”, but of people working in bad systems. It was people responding to the indirect motives around them. Incentives that reward unethical sales practices (economic pressure), pressure from stressed-out management to find impossible solutions (emotional pressure), threats of losing your job if you fail to do so (even more emotional and economic pressure) etc. Almost anyone in this kind of situation would take the option that ensures their individual and immediate survival: pushy sales practices, creating false accounts, developing a “work-around” for an impossible technical challenge, whatever it takes. Even though we know in the moment that this will harm the organisation at some point.
Naturally, not all tasks are created equal. Some of them do not enable any play, purpose or potential. In those very rare cases, you may have to resort to economic or emotional pressure. Otherwise, the task won’t be done at all. But if you want to create a team or an organisation with people that bring their best selves to work and apply themselves to the best of their abilities, indirect motives will not get you there.
To summarise: indirect motives “work” in a sense because they will get you tactical performance, but they will reduce adaptive performance – in extreme cases even leading to maladaptive performance. You can pay someone to follow the recipe, but it is much harder – in fact it is counterproductive – to pay or pressure someone to improvise on the spot or show ownership. Instead ask how to increase Play, Purpose and Potential, while reducing emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia.
How to create a motivating environment
As a quick caveat before we dive into this: creating a motivating culture is a highly adaptive task, so there is no simple recipe that we can follow. But just as with improvised cooking, there are rules of thumb, interdependencies, and helpful systems of knowledge. I.e. If you have an idea of what spices tend to go with what ingredients, you will likely create a better dish than if you randomly chucked something into a pot. So, knowing about different kinds of performance and motives can guide your thinking so you can better “improvise” with regards to motivation. More concretely, let’s look at some factors that affect direct and indirect motives. Let’s look at three crucial ones.
1) Role Design
You may have expected leadership to come first, but it turns out role design is the factor you should look at first. This factor has two main variables: 1) to what degree does the role encourage direct motives and reduce indirect motives and 2) who is sitting in that role. A simple question to ask yourself and the person in that role is: “is that role boring?” And if so, “what would make this role more engaging?”. As an example: consider that new programmer you hired 9 months ago, who keeps having more and more bugs in her code. Its unlikely the programmer got worse, but very likely that the job got more boring to her as the learning curve flattened and the tasks have become routine. Try to figure out ways to reintroduce play in her role or swap whoever is filling out that role.
2) Career Paths
How can you advance in your organisation? Is it an elimination contest, where only one person can move up? Maybe even through a not-very-transparent process, based on unknown criteria? This will add massive amounts of indirect motivation due to the prestige, pressure, potential unfairness and pay rise associated with career advancement. And is that move up the career ladder inextricably linked with taking on management and leadership responsibility? This will reduce play for many people once they are in their new role. After all, if you excelled at your last role because you enjoyed the associated work – let’s say in marketing – it is far from obvious that you will like the work as the team leader of a team of marketing people. So, ask yourself: what could be career paths other than management or leadership that would make sense in your organisation? How and based on what should you take promotion decisions? What skills do you want to promote and reward? Would an organisation of only managers and leaders, or people who aspire to be one, be an effective organisation?
Improve play by providing the time and space to experiment and learn, and by making it clear when someone is performing well. Improve purpose by regularly helping your team members see how and why their jobs matter. This could be achieved by simple things like asking in a weekly or monthly team meeting: “How did we progress against our purpose this week?”. Reduce emotional pressure by being fair and transparent, making sure that goals are fair and reasonable. Reduce economic pressure by evaluating your team members holistically – which means not just based on one or two easily measured KPIs that cannot take everything into account. Maybe that one team member that really holds the team together is crucial, but that rarely shows up in KPIs – same for another team member that puts a lot of time into teaching their colleagues, maybe even at the short term expense of their own tactical performance. Finally, reduce inertia by making it easy for others to challenge the status quo and getting things done.
For this, however, you need psychological safety and a good error culture.
But that’s a story for another post.
How does motivation work: key learnings
To summarise the key learnings:
- There are two kinds of performance: tactical and adaptive.
- There are two motive categories: direct (play, purpose & potential) and indirect (emotional pressure, economic pressure, inertia). Direct motives improve both tactical and adaptive performance, indirect motives improve tactical but reduce adaptive performance.
- To work on these motives, you need to look at more than just leadership, but at the whole environment, such as role design and career paths.
 VUCA stands for an environment that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous
 Ariely et al., “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes.”
 Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, “Extrinsic Rewards Undermine Altruistic Tendencies in 20-Month-Olds.” Developmental Psychology 44 (2008): 1785–88, doi:10.1037/a0013860.
 E. L. Deci, R. Koestner, and R. M. Ryan, “A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation.” Psychological Bulletin 125 (1999): 627–68; discussion 692–700, http://ow.ly/L6aiQ.
 i.e. a diesel engine that meets strict regulatory benchmarks while having high performance at the same time
 There are more, but here we want to focus on three key factors.
 If you know the „Peter-Principle” this may sound familiar to you.
Books used for this article / Further reading:
Doshi, N. & McGregor, L. (2015). Primed to Perform. How to How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us