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The science of motivation

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“Ah, you studied psychology.”


Nervous twitch. Sudden refusal to make eye contact, like they realized I have X-ray vision or can read the darkest secrets of their soul.

The squirming is a definite perk of the degree. But what I really love about psychology is that people are the best kind of puzzle.

You meet someone, and initially think them stingy or strange. Then you get to know them, and suddenly they make perfect sense.

Why is understanding people important? It’s the key to motivation.

Knowing how to effectively motivate is a skill we all need, whether we’re negotiating with a grouchy toddler or trying to inspire volunteers. Motivation can be tricky because it’s partially specific to the individual. Luckily, there’s a universal science to it as well.

Noted author, businessman and TED Talk extraordinaire Daniel Pink gave an 11-minute video “The Surprising Science of Motivation” that forever changed my perspective. The following is a shameless spinoff of his lecture, with a nonprofit-focused twist.

Principle No. 1: Stop Bribing

Most psychologists believe in basic operant conditioning: If I like what you're doing, I reward you. If I don’t, I punish you. The “carrot stick” principle is the reward system we use whether we’re rewarding a child with candy or luring an executive with the promise of a corner office.

Yet carrot sticks only work for simple, straight forward tasks.

Pink stated that surprisingly, for any task involving even a little creative or analytical thinking, money-motivation simply doesn’t work. It can even backfire:

“Larger rewards actually lead to poorer performance."

The problem with focusing solely on traditional rewards is it makes people obsessed with reward attainment. Distracting them from the actual task.

So what are we to do? Use money to satiate, not end all:

“The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table,” Pink stated.

Bottom line — bribery only goes so far.

Apply It

The good news for volunteer managers is this proves that people don’t have to be salaried to be dedicated. Since high salaries can even decrease motivation, people working for free may actually be ahead of the game.

With mercenary worries out of the way, the challenge becomes keeping altruistic people motivated. To do this effectively, we must give them a sense of: ownership, mastery, and purpose.

Principle No. 2: Ownership is Motivating

So if bribery doesn’t work for motivating people in creative and analytical tasks, what does? Autonomy.

Why? Because freedom to be self-directed creates ownership. When you give someone a choice of what to do and how to do it, you immediately make them invested. Their decision, their input, puts their skin in the game.

Bottom line — getting engagement requires giving a choice.

Apply It

Pink recounts the story of how Atlassian, an Australian software company, radically applied the autonomy principle.

Once every quarter their developers are given 24 hours to work on anything. The one rule is that they have to produce something for show & tell. The result of this laissez faire? Productivity and innovation skyrocket.

Pink described this autonomy mentality as:

“You probably want to do something interesting, let me just get out of your way.”

While you may not be ready to let a volunteer to work on just anything, you can invite them to give in a way that’s uniquely their own, and skills-based volunteering is a great place to start.

Principle No. 3: Mastery is Motivating

The path of least resistance is a cliché for a reason.

And yet we spend countless doing “creative work.” Learning how to blog, knit, or wood carve. Strenuous things. Why?

Dustin Wax put it well in his great article on motivation:

“Rewards force us to consider our work in a limited way, even work that we might gain great satisfaction from doing without the promise of reward...Perhaps the single most motivating factor in our lives is the sense that we’re fulfilling a greater purpose. That’s why lawyers will do for free what they won’t do for cheap.”

For all our supposed laziness, we need more than a life of leisure. We need to conquer and contribute.

Bottom line — Stronger than the need for convenience, is the need to create and give back.

Apply It

Get to know your volunteers. Make it your goal to find a symbiotic opportunity and offer to be their guinea pig.

I started volunteering as a guest blogger because I told a colleague I was looking to hone my writing and he rightly heard free writer. Take advantage of your volunteers’ strengths.

Principle No. 4: Purpose is Motivating

My mom once told me that the hardest things in life would be mundane, not tragic.

The real problem of motivation isn’t finding something worth believing in. Rather it’s believing all the mundane things we do, matter. Luckily, our perception of purpose can be enhanced.

Christopher Hulleman conducted a fascinating study to see if sense of meaning could be facilitated. In his intervention, two groups of high school students were asked to write about science. The first group applied science to their daily lives, the second simply summarized class lessons.

The result? Students who related the importance of science to their personal lives, reported the greatest interest, and improved their grades the most.

What does this have to do with us? It teaches us that perspective is everything. It’s our perspective that will determine whether or not we’re willing to invest.

Bottom line — meaning and purpose begins with office culture.

Apply It

Do whatever it takes to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Celebrate every small victory. Surround yourself with photos of the people or places that make up your purpose.

“When you start treating people as people, and not assuming they’re horses,” Pink said, “we start to build organizations that aren’t just a little bit better off, but a world that’s just a little bit better.”

Anna Spady is a Guest Blogger for VolunteerMark. You can read more of her writing on her blog, Out-Ana-Limb.

Photos (from top) via All photos used with permission.

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