In my opinion, many business leaders have lost sight of how to motivate people at work. In fact, some companies haven’t updated their incentive practices in years, which means they’re probably struggling to create and sustain high-performing teams.

Companies continue to ignore the obvious: Offering incentives and rewards is less effective than tapping into truly meaningful intrinsic motivation. Leaders operate on old assumptions about motivation despite a wealth of well-documented scientific evidence.

In the work I do, I hear executives complain about disengaged workers, at the same time they spend time and money on rewards programs. Instead, I believe they’d be better off giving extra time to discovery conversations that tap into people’s internal drives.

The old “carrot-and-stick” mentality actually inhibits employees from seeking creative solutions, partly because they focus on attaining rewards instead of solving problems. Review the most notorious business failures – Enron, for example – and you’ll find that company leaders focused on rewarding short-term results at the expense of sustaining success.

Effective motivation requires you to offer opportunities that satisfy three basic human needs:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Relatedness
  3. Competence

This approach is far from new. Social scientists have grasped what motivates people for more than 60 years. But managers continue to use the carrot/stick model with incentive programs. Regardless of gender, race, culture or generation, the reality is clear: Are you satisfying your people’s psychological needs?

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work

I’m reading Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging by consultant Susan Fowler. The book serves as a good reminder that managers must periodically review their motivational techniques to recapture their leadership mojo.

If your employees are inert, disengaged and bored, something has flipped their default setting. Our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed, to seek out and explore solutions to problems.

Many leaders will resist giving up their carrots, and many workers will find it hard to imagine a world without incentives. We’re conditioned to like the carrots and avoid the sticks.

But leaders who recognize the value of, and who can implement, intrinsic motivation can expect a whole new workplace — and an entirely new definition of work. In my opinion, we don’t need better management as much as a renaissance of self-direction.

The bigger, unanswered question is whether today’s leaders are ready to rise to the new challenges autonomy will require. What do you think are the obstacles to harnessing these core psychological needs for improving performance?

I’d love to hear about your experiences trying to reach employees through their desires for autonomy, relatedness and competence. You can contact me here or on LinkedIn.