Motivation: How to Find the Spark that Replaces Carrots

How can managers motivate disengaged people? How do you find the spark that lights people’s fire at work? If carrots and sticks don’t really work, what does?

People are most motivated, productive and satisfied when work puts them in a state of “flow” — popularly called being “in the zone.” In the flow state, one experiences a heightened sense of focus and a generally high sense of satisfaction.

What we know about flow is primarily based on the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes it as the moment in which “a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed, to seek out and explore solutions to problems. It’s in our nature to find motivation. Scientists have known this ever since a psychologist named Harry Harlow put puzzles into the cages of monkeys and watched them go to work solving them.

There were no rewards, no bananas. Before the experiment had even started, the monkeys were self-directed to achieve success. This work was expanded by Edward Deci who further proved that we crave self-determination and intrinsic motivation.

If your employees are inert, disengaged and bored, maybe something has flipped their default motivational setting. Maybe you’ve been offering carrots and incentives for so long they’ve become lazy about finding self-directed drive.

Managers find it hard to give up their carrots and stick incentive programs, and many workers will find it hard to imagine a world without incentives. We’re conditioned to like the carrots and avoid the sticks. Our basic state, however, is to find the things we’re curious about and solve the problems that challenge us.

How difficult is it for managers to talk to their people, find out what sparks their curiosity, and try to find work that is a good fit for them within the scope of their jobs?

I don’t have answers, but I’d guess that each employee would have plenty to say about the kinds of things that spark their true drive. Most people know what they like doing, what they get excited about.

Managers who recognize the value of  intrinsic motivation can create a whole new workplace — one based on sparks, curiosity, drive and enjoyment. What do you think about this… too hard to do? Too idealistic?

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