How to Incentivize the Right Way

August 10, 2021

So you’re passionate about what you do now and that comes across in the way you talk and the decisions you make. The next challenge is how you’re going to pass this on to your staff and your team so that they feel the same way.

And you can’t expect them to be as passionate about everything as you to begin with. Sure, it would be nice if they were and if they had that ‘implicit’ motivation. But in reality, a lot of your staff are just there to make money so that they can go home to their partners and kids.They have their own dreams. So how do you motivate them and get them on board?

Why Incentives Don’t Work

One method is to try and use incentives: that means offering money or other rewards. Unfortunately though, this simply doesn’t tend to work – it fosters poor teamwork and can actually prevent your team from working their best.
It can even make a team less motivated! This is best illustrated by something called the ‘candle experiment’, which is an experiment designed to test creativity.

Specifically, it is designed to test the ability to overcome a ‘cognitive bias’ called ‘functional fixedness’.  Essentially, functional fixedness causes us to get stuck in one way of thinking, usually about a tool or a task. Here, we tend to fixate on one way of doing something, to the point where we can no longer think of any other solutions or any other contexts.

So for example, if someone were to give you a hammer and ask you to open a window, you might smash the glass rather than use the hammer as a lever to pry the window open. Why? Because you can only think of the hammer terms of its main use: hitting things. It requires an extra level of creativity to think outside of that box and to look at a hammer as an implement that can be used in any of a wide number of different ways.

To test this ability, the candle experiment presents participants with a box of tacks and a candle and then asks them to attach the candle to the wall so that it can burn. Most people will attempt to tack the candle to the wall and will find it continually falls off. But the solution is in fact to tack the box to the wall and then to stand the candle inside it. This requires participants to think outside that box and to think of the box as a part of the experiment and a resource.

One way you can do this is by using the psychological experiment of breaking down all the items you have into their constituent parts and materials: you don’t have a candle, you have a candle, wax and string for example. A box of tacks is tacks, a box, cardboard and metal. What’s interesting and relevant about this study is that when an
incentive is introduced (a reward for the person who first comes up with the solution), performance actually goes down.

This makes sense from a neuroscience perspective because motivation gives us focus and focus makes it hard for us to see all possibilities. Flow states on the other hand encourage the brain to produce anandamide – a neurotransmitter that is correlated with creativity and lateral thinking. So you need to move your team away from working toward a reward and toward thinking of the work as rewarding in itself.

Plus, we all know that as soon as we start doing something for money or for grades it becomes less fun. This is why no one enjoys their college courses – even though they chose the subject!

Teamwork and Incentives

The other problem with incentives is that they actually make us less likely to work as teams. One way to think about this is by looking at the military. In the military, one member will often be willing to give their life for the rest of the team. And they are rewarded for this mentality – they are rewarded for sacrificing their own needs for the betterment of everyone else.

But in the case of business, we are often encouraged instead to sacrifice others in order to get ahead. We are rewarded for making the most sales in our team, which encourages us to pilfer sales from other salesmen and women. Rewarding individuals gives them a good reason to tread on each other to get ahead.

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