The Truth About Motivation

by Steve Neale
Business Psychologist, Physiologist, Executive Coach, Hypnotherapist, Psychodynamic Counsellor, EI Practitioner, Associate Professor, Teacher on 5 EMBA Programmes, Member of the British Psychological Association
Steen Vierø Petersen
MDM and BA in Management, certified PMP and CMC


Having spend the last 20 years working in organisations all over the world, we have noticed that there is a motivation gap.
To clarify, that gap is between what most organisation’s think motivates their employees, and what psychology and neuroscience tells us actually motivates employees.
This short study, first carried out by psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945, clarifies the problem. (it has since been replicated numberous tmes)
Imagine you have a candle, some matchsticks and a box full of drawing pins like in the picture below

  And the question is, how do you light the candle standing upright above the table so that no wax drips on the table?

The answer?

Take the drawing pins out of the box, attach the box to the wall and melt the candle at the bottom to stick in the the box and then light it.

Easy when you know how!

This famous little puzzle was the first of many that tell us something very important about motivation.

In the original study, students were offered differing levels of financial reward if they could solve the puzzle in a given time period.

Some were offered no money at all.

Some were offered $5

Some were offered $10

Some were offered $15

Some were offered $20.


And here’s the amazing thingthose who were offered no reward performed best.

And those who were offered the highest financial reward performed worst.


The Conclusion?

For certain types of task, financial reward does not motivate people. In fact the opposite – the higher the financial reward the worse the performance.

This directly challenges the way many organisations offer their staff material and financial rewards in the false belief that it will motivate their staff to work harder.

Think of the millions of dollars, Euros, and Krone wasted every year!


And what’s worse…

Once you start the bonus culture, staff very soon begin to expect it year after year.

So here’s the truth about motivation, supported by numerous academic studies similar to the candle puzzle…


Motivation is an inside job!

So it is not external factors that motivate people, it’s internal factors.

It is true that for routine jobs that require no creativity or thinking, money can motivate.

So, for example, let’s say you want someone to move 100 chairs from 1 room to another.  If you offer them 250 € if they do it in 30 minutes or 500 € if they do it in 15 minutes, chances are they will work faster and go all out for the 500 € reward.

But for any task or problem solving that requires some kind of intellectual ability and thought, the higher the financial reward you offer people, the worse their performance becomes!


So that begs the question…

What does really motivate people?

For now, we will leave you with a simple list of the top 5 motivators which are just GREAT

Growth (the chance to learn and develop)

Responsibility (and autonomy over your own life and work)

Excellence (the chance to become a master at what you do)

Achievement (realistic goals being met)

Thanks (recognition for your efforts)


So it’s simple…

If you really want to turn on the internal motivation switches in people , focus on the 5 elements of the GREAT model.

And save your company a fortune at the same time!

Now let’s look at how this works in terms of our brains.

Well to understand this we need to talk about elephants and riders.  You see, you have one key region of your brain that plays a central role in motivation, and it’s called your Limbic System  (also called the subconscious brain or the elephant).  Your elephant, or limbic system, triggers your emotional responses which impact directly on your thoughts and actions (the word motivation simply means “move emotion”). So, when you are motivated or when you are motivating others, your limbic system has been triggered to produce positive emotions and via changes in chemicals in your body (emotions are just chemical changes in the body) this leads to positive feelings, thoughts and actions.

And then you have a different region of your brain in the pre-frontal cortex that is primarily responsible for rationalization, intellect and logical thought.  We can call that the rider.

So when you talk of bonuses, rewards, benefits and how great a new project is you are speaking to people’s riders.  You are trying to persuade the rational part of their brains.

The problem is, riders are not responsible for motivation and driving new behaviors –   elephants are!  So to really motivate people you need to speak to their elephants and switch on those subconscious motivation buttons.

And studies have time and time again shown that opportunities for growth, having autonomy and responsibility, being able to excel in your task or field, opportunities to achieve and receiving recognition for those achievements all switch on the elephants motivation buttons!

And then of course, there’s another vital question to ask yourself connected to motivation – do you prefer pain or pleasure?

Because too much pain is not good for you.

Yet still we see the “pain” approach dominate in many organizations.

There are 2 key drivers that motivate you to take action in your life – pain and pleasure.

For example, did you buy a new car because you love the new model (pleasure) or because your old car broke down (pain)?

Did you start eating healthy food because you love the taste and energy it gives you (pleasure) or because your health was in a bad way and you were forced to change your diet (pain)?

Did you write the report because you love writing reports (pleasure) or because your boss will fire you if you don’t (pain)?

(And yes, there are a few people out there who do like writing reports!)


And of course…

Often it is a combination of both pleasure and pain that drives us to take action.  So maybe you do enjoy a healthy salad and, at the same time, you know you have to lose weight.

Problem is…

Like we said, too many people and organizations rely predominantly on pain as a motivator.

And contrary to the popular saying, “No pain no gain”, a more accurate saying is…

“Too much pain again and again will give no gain at all!”


Here’s an example

Typically, in project meetings or at the end of a project there a review of what needs to be improved.  And I hear lots of conversations about what is not working as well what needs to be done to improve it.  Whilst all of this is valid and needs to be done to improve things, it is all pain motivation.

And pain motivation alone will demotivate people over time.

What many projects need is a balanced approach to motivation which also includes a healthy dose of looking at what’s working really well and how this can be celebrated and shared more.

In their famous book on Change Management called Switch, Chip and Dan Health refer to this as “following the bright spots”.  So rather than just focusing on what is not working, there is an active policy of noticing and promoting and learning from what is working too.

In fact, pressing the right pleasure and pain motivators is directly related to your communication culture at work.

When starting any new initiative or project, to tap into people’s motivation and reward center in their elephants, 2 fundamental questions need to be answered:

What are the benefits to me and others if I do this? (pleasure motivation)

What are the drawbacks to me and others if I don’t do this? (pain motivation)


And it is true…

That both pleasure and pain are motivators to take action.

But I find a balance of mostly pleasure with the occasional reminder of pain works best.

So in sum:

  • Most businesses focus too much on material and financial reward when it comes to motivation.
  • Studies show that external factors rarely switch on people’s internal motivation buttons. The 5 elements of the GREAT model do switch on these buttons
  • Motivation is generated and maintained by triggers to the Limbic System, not the rational part of the brain.
  • Both pleasure and pain can trigger motivation, and many organizations would benefit from using more pleasure motivators to engage their staff.

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