How do you get people to perform certain actions, and more importantly, how to get them to do what you want them to do? At some point in your life, you’ve probably either asked yourself or have been the subject of this question. Most times we revert to the simplest of reasoning: You don’t get something for nothing. So this simple trade-based thesis results in a straightforward solution. You either give them something they want or give them something to fear.

👫 This post is aimed at
Anyone who is looking for a more theoretic and scientific explanation of how motivation works for employees.
📖 After reading
You'll be aware of the difference between hygiene and real motivators, and of how intuo plays into the hand of the latter.


Something about carrots and sticks

Allow me to paint you a picture, and introduce our protagonist in this shortest of stories: Jebediah, Jebby for short. Now, Jebby and his pet donkey, named Kong, lived several thousands of years ago, and he was quite the innovator back in his day. He lived a simple life, balancing work and wooing the ladies. Since Jebby wasn’t the Clooney/Pitt type, the latter took up a lot of his time. He needed more time to make some progress with the ladies, so he got to thinking. During work, slaving with bags and bags of harvested products, innovation-mode kicked in. By dangling a carrot in front of his donkey, Kong, he could make it go the way he wanted, and by using a stick, he could punish poor Kong for what was considered as bad behavior. Results! Kong was now slaving away, Jebby’s work got done a whole lot quicker, and many Jebediah Juniors were made.

This is basically what the carrot and stick idiom tells us, and what corporate thinking has since implemented as their main driver to get things done. You dangle a reward in front of a person, and/or threaten them with a punishment to induce good behavior. Just because I’m feeling it, I’m putting on my captain obvious costume: People are not donkeys. (Okay, I have met some people I kind of thought they were donkeys, but never like… physically a donkey.)

You can’t argue with results, and it’s clear that this method has been efficient. Kids have been taught right from wrong through a combination of candy and spanking. Men have been coerced to act certain ways with the lethal sex/no sex cocktail. Employees have gone the extra mile for a bigger paycheck, or in fear of getting fired. But is this the best way to motivate people?

Two-factor theory

Frederick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory, also known as the two-factor theory, has a fascinating perspective on how to get the most out of your employees. His groundbreaking publication “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” dating back to 1968 is still very relevant, and one of the most requested articles from the Harvard Business Review. It revealed that true motivation is created through a combination of circumstances, rather than the simplified reward/punishment method.

The theory didn’t steal its name, as it distinguishes two sets of factors. According to Herzberg, and contrary to general belief, both factors are independent phenomena that do not affect each other. A decrease in dissatisfaction does not lead to an increase in satisfaction. This has major implications on how to motivate your employees. Traditionally speaking, carrot-and-sticking, you would think that by paying attention to keeping the dissatisfying factors maintained, motivation would ensue. Easy example: A higher salary or rather a sweeter carrot or a sharper stick equals higher motivation.

Dissatisfying factors are also referred to as hygiene factors, as they do not cause motivation but solely cause dissatisfaction. To avoid this from happening, they need to be eliminated. For example, make sure reasonable and fair wages are paid and job security is ensured. These are mostly extrinsic to the work itself. This is right up Jebby’s alley, but these rewards are only half the work.

Satisfying factors were more Freddy’s thing, and make up the other half. He believed this was what could trigger and maintain real motivation. Intrinsic to work itself, they possess the ability to motivate people at work and thus lead to higher performance.

His publication also suggested several ideas on how to trigger these motivators.

  • Increase employee autonomy = Decrease management’s control.
  • Create complete and natural work units where this is possible.
  • Provide direct, regular and continuous feedback on productivity and job performance.
  • Encourage employees to take on new and challenging tasks, and become experts.

This is not an exhaustive list, but what becomes clear is that to get real motivation the answer cannot be found through simple rewards. This goes against what we believe, or at least it caught me a bit off guard. You give something, you get something in return.

The motivational puzzle

As I mentioned before, this neanderthal-model has had and is having success. My research quickly led me to Daniel Pink. After finishing law school, mister Pink has been devoting his life to studying the motivation puzzle in people. I strongly encourage you to watch his inspiring TED-talk, but while you’re here I’ll shed some light on what I consider to be the main takeaway: “There is a mismatch between what science knows, and business does”.

Extrinsic motivators work well for so-called 20th-century tasks. This industrial era came with pretty simple tasks, but today more and more complex tasks and are needed and expected. This complexity requires creative thinking and rewards work contra-productive. They narrow your focus, and this tunnel-vision does not allow you to see the solution. Solutions are now found a lot more in the “periphery” rather than in your focused view.

Science has proven the inefficiency of creating motivation through these carrots and sticks in complex tasks over and over again, yet corporations are still employing this strategy. (Mr. Pink discusses this at length) A part of the reason for its success can be explained by the fact that the principles are as simple as ABC. As I’ve tried to explain in this blog, true motivation cannot be found through merely handing out rewards. There are however a few things we can keep in mind to achieve the best results.

Modern psychology uses three pillars to boost intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy - the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery - the urge to get better, or develop skills.
  • Purpose - the need to do what we do for reasons bigger than ourselves.

intuo as the vehicle of change

At intuo we firmly believe in these three pillars. Changing towards a company that can tackle these three components is not an easy task, and we believe our platform can be the vehicle of change. By helping you focus on coaching, through continuous feedback and frequent one-on-one’s, we can support employees in their search for Mastery. Aligning personal objectives, with the company’s strategy focuses on finding purpose. Giving them the reigns to their career allows you to step away from top-down management, and move towards empowered employees.

It worked for my man Jebby, and it has worked for years, but that’s irrelevant. When it comes to down to it, there’s only one question you should be asking yourself: “Is this still working for me?”.