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The Carrot at the End of the Stick



December 1, 2012 at 7:20 pm
Personal Finance



For decades, ineffective managers have incorrectly identified monetary compensation, public recognition, and clearly stated goal-structure as the main motivators of their employees. And while annual raises and recognition are important in their own way, they do not appeal to the human psychology the way that small incremental achievement can.

One need only take a look at the success of RPG video game models and their addiction inducing success to find the perfect example of how gratifying small accomplishments can be. A player is presented his own avatar and after a brief series of accomplishments he is rewarded for his effort by gaining a higher level. To gain the next level, the effort required is slightly increased and this continues ad infinitum for each level. Like slowly heating the water to a boil around a frog, the difficulty is increased so subtly that the difference is barely registered. The result is that player does not immediately recognize the increase in difficulty because he is so encouraged by the frequent affirmation of his accomplishments.

A series of small accomplishments can, in truth, be a far greater motivator than the completion of large over-bearing task. Each small milestone adds its strength to the flywheel, exponentially creating momentum that one great push never could.

Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., professor of business administration and director of research at Harvard Business School, claims that the greatest motivator in the workplace is a sense of accomplishment. Her research revealed that employees felt their best whenever they had accomplished some amount of significant progress toward their company’s overall mission, their worst whenever they suffered setbacks.

I am reminded of something my father often asked me, as I am sure many fathers asked their sons, “How do you eat an elephant?” Well the answer, of course, is “one bite at a time.” As human beings, we live in the moment, and are motivated the day to day. If every day, I can take a few bites of elephant then I know eventually I will eat the whole thing. But when faced with the entirety of an enormous task with only the distant promise of eventual reward, I like many others feel daunted, and my motivation is sapped.

So how can an employer motivate his employees to their greatest potential? The answer may be in giving those employees as many opportunities as possible to make tangible, significant contributions to the overall mission of the company, and recognizing those contributions more frequently. People feel their most productive when they perceive their actions to have meaningful, substantial effects and those efforts are acknowledged by others. Reinforcing those feelings may be the secret to sustaining perpetual motivation.