It is possible: motivation without rewards

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PostedJuly 30, 2014, in  Step 5: improve & innovate
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The threat of a world on the verge of destruction, or the promise of a bright future: one who intends to change the world, almost always opts for one of these communication strategies. Punishment or rewards have been the basic methods to convert people for decades. A logical but ineffective approach: there is a much better way to motivate people.


Problems in abundance

Dirty drinking water, poverty, child labour, scarcity of raw materials or the collapsed housing market: those who wish to speak about global problems have no shortage on topics. The Presencing Institute distinguishes three main symptoms of the current global socio-economic challenges:

  1. The Ecological Divide: We use a lot more resources than the planet can handle. The current ecological footprint is 1.5 planets. In time, it creates an untenable situation with too little farmland and unaffordable food.
  2. The Social Divide: The difference between rich and poor is increasing. As many as 2.5 billion people live on less than $ 2 per day.
  3. The Spiritual-Cultural Divide: The pursuit of material wellbeing at the expense of spiritual wealth. This is reflected by a strong growth of people with depression and burnout. The World Health Organization has stated that in 2000, more than twice as many people died from suicide than as a result of war.


In the figure above, the 3 divides are presented in the shape of an iceberg. This is to show that most problems are invisible; many bubbles are ‘under water’ and we simply are not aware of them. Sustainability gurus typically preach about one of these problems and then usually use the 'stick' or the 'carrot': either an enormous threat or a reward awaits us. After a brief moment of attention, the audience quickly returns to what they were doing before. This is logical, because these tactics in fact work counterproductive.  

Rewards block creativity

Dan Pink, former speechwriter for Al Gore, states in his book Drive that there is a gap between what science knows and what business does. In general focus is put on the short term, investors want quick results. To achieve that employees are promised (financial) rewards. Unfortunately, this works counterproductive: rewards slow the thinking process down and block creativity. The best results are achieved by internal rather than external motivation: someone with drive and passion will make full use of his or her potential, which naturally leads to the best results.     

Autonomy, mastery, purpose

In an inspiring TED Talk Pink shows the three key elements of motivation at work:

  1. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery: the desire to get better and better in something that matters.
  3. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves.  



Several large companies have already achieved good results with these insights. Think of Google, where employees are provided with time to do whatever they want. No conditions, just freedom. One result: Gmail. Or think of Wikipedia, where the authors do not get paid a penny, but they actually feel they make a contribution to the world.  

Scientific support

Who wants to get best out of employees will need to increase internal motivation first. Who wants to change the world should do the same. Autonomy, mastery and purpose should be the central point of every sustainability strategy. From individual world citizens to the assembled world leaders: we are all people with human needs, emotions and expectations. That creates opportunity. The science shows this is right. Time for the rest to follow.  

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PostedJuly 30, 2014, in Step 5: improve & innovate
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