What Science Tells Us About Motivation

Understanding human motivation is never trivial. The question of what motivates us is so large and complex that there is no single answer nor single approach to de-constructing it. However, this subject has been widely investigated by researchers, psychologists and behavioral scientists, and their insights are highly relevant to the workplace.
Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University is one of the boldest experts to explore this issue. Ariely wrote dozens of articles and is constantly working to reveal more and more about people and what motivates them.
In honor of his fifth book, we want to bring to you some of his latest insights about motivation.

It’s all about the meaning

Managers often underestimate the importance of meaning at work. Meaning does not equal happiness, it means being involved, helping others, having a purpose other than our own life. Unfortunately, managers tend to underappreciate the extent in which a feeling of depth can influence people’s behavior. This feeling of meaning drives people to work much harder. When ignoring this, managers unintentionally damage the motivation of their employees and they basically kill their enthusiasm.

Making the job more interesting, granting more responsibilities and letting employees do different things every time can make wonders in their engagement at work. The more autonomy we give to our employees, the greater connection they’ll have to the organization, and the more we acknowledge their work, the more sense of meaning they’ll have. Experiments show that when people are acknowledged for their work they are willing to work more, even for less pay. Another important thing to remember is that ignoring the efforts of employees at work is as worse than and as discouraging as giving negative and unsupportive feedback. You can increase motivation by acknowledging your employees work, and decreased when unacknowledging and when ignoring one’s work.

People actually like to work hard!

Did you ever think that if you spend more time and more effort on a job, it will bring you much more joy?
The “IKEA effect” as described by Ariely, is the effect of the efforts and hard work one puts into one’s assignment or job, resulting in a sense of participation, creation and ownership. It’s the “do it yourself” effect that makes us feel proud and worthy. People actually have a need for accomplishment and a feeling of creation, and in that case, they are more than willing to work hard. Managers sometimes tend to think that employees look for the easy way and shortcut, but understanding that principle is highly important for the workplace. Using this knowledge, you can structure your workplace in a way that makes your employees more productive and more fulfilled

Money vs. Engagement

Incentives are tricky, and there are many misconceptions about them. For example, the mistaken belief that threats and punishments will work for the long term, and the belief that paying more will always make the employee happy, because who doesn’t want more money? But In fact, it’s the other way around. Adding money to the equation can backfire motivation and make people less driven. The reason for that is because motivation is influenced by social norms, and money often has a negative effect on social norms. Take for example a family dinner your mother worked very hard on, gathered all the family together and prepared your favorite foods. If you try to quantify it and offer her a compensation in exchange that effort, she will probably be offended no matter what amount of money you offer. That’s because good relationships aren’t transactional, they come from a true willingness to put effort, energy and time.

Turning the workplace into an environment of reciprocities than include punishments and external monetary rewards does not promote trust, but rather kills motivation and promotes fear. As managers, our goal is to promote transactions of trust in our organization, these are the ones who inspire employees to step out of their standard job, take extra tasks and responsibilities, think outside of the box and thrive to excel in their work. Read more about recognition and employee recognition programs.


Overall, the motivation equation – the question of which incentives motivate us and how, has still many question marks around it. However, there are all kinds of things that organizations can do to reinforce the feelings of meaning, connection and engagement in their employees. Keep in mind the most important things- employees need to feel they’re work is recognized, they need to feel challenged with hard work that has meaning to them. Money is in many cases a disincentive, and the key is promoting trust and building long-term deep relationships.


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