Motivation: What Managers Can Learn From Monkeys

Motivation-Smart-MonkeyIn 1949, psychologist Harry Harlow placed puzzles in monkeys’ cages and was surprised to find that the primates successfully solved them. Harlow saw no logical reason for them to do so. What was their motivation?

  • Their survival didn’t depend on it.
  • The monkey’s didn’t receive any rewards nor avoid any punishments for their work.
  • Apparently, the monkeys solved the puzzles simply because they had a desire to do so.

As to their motivation, Harlow offered a novel theory: “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.” The monkeys performed because they found it gratifying to solve puzzles. They enjoyed it, and the joy of the task was its own reward.

Further experiments found that offering external rewards to solve these puzzles didn’t improve performance. In fact, rewards disrupted task completion.

This led Harlow to identify a third drive in human motivation:

  1. The first drive for behaviors is survival. We drink, eat and copulate to ensure our survival.
  2. The second drive is to seek rewards and avoid punishment.
  3. The third drive is intrinsic: to achieve internal satisfaction.

What Motivates People?

Twenty years passed before the psychologist Edward Deci, now a professor at the University of Rochester, followed up on Harlow’s studies on intrinsic motivation.

In 1969, Deci ran a series of experiments that showed students lost intrinsic interest in an activity when money was offered as an external reward. The results surprised many behavioral scientists. Although rewards can deliver a short-term boost, the effect wears off. Even worse, rewards can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue a project.

Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan later expanded on the early work differentiating between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Their Self-Determination Theory proposed three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination. These needs are said to be universal, innate and psychological:

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Psychological relatedness

Deci proposed that human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn. Unlike drives (for thirst, food, and sex), these needs aren’t ever satisfied. When we attain a degree of competency, autonomy and relatedness, we want more.

Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing. ~ Susan Fowler, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging

Trying to motivate people with the promise of rewards doesn’t work. You can’t impose growth, learning and meaning upon someone, they must find it for themselves. But you can promote a learning environment that doesn’t undermine people’s sense of competence.

What are you doing as a manager or leader to provide growth and learning? What questions should you be asking your people that would stimulate their learning? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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