Is money equals motivation a conventional wisdom we have to break?

The last few days I have been reading the book Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. It describes many experiments done over the years that illustrate how people behave in irrational ways when we – and when I say we I mean traditional economics – expect them to act like rational people. While I don’t agree with some of the conclusions Ariely makes in his book, I find the questions fascinating. Thus, I am going to dedicate my next few posts to relevant lessons for managing people the book.

Chapter 4 of the book is called: “the cost of social norms – why we are happy to do things, but not when we are paid to do them”. In it, Ariely describes a number of experiments that show how when people are paid to do things, they do them with less enthusiasm and effectiveness. It reminded me of the above fascinating TED talk by Dan Pink that talks about similar experiments that led to similar (but a little different) conclusions. Both Ariely and Pink conclude that we need to rethink the effectiveness of money as a motivator for work.

So, is money being the best motivator another conventional wisdom that needs breaking.  Well, I will let my past as lawyer get the better of me and say – yes and no.

Yes, because we need to realize that the world is changing. That some things that we thought were true are not true anymore. There is a growing tendency of people to seek out work that not only gives them money, but also gives them joy, a sense of impact and work life balance. People look to use their strengths more and attempt to reach a state of flow. And we need to understand that money creates problems, because it is easy to compare (link in Hebrew). I would direct you to Ariely’s first chapter in the book about relativity.

But the answer is also no. in some situations, monetary rewards work. And when we think about these experiments we need to remember a few things. First, the experiments described in Ariley’s book and in Pink’s lecture are experiments, done in a lab, on students and not in a real work environment. Real life is different and we need to be careful in applying the lessons learned in the lab without thinking about the differences between students in the lab and real life work environment. Second, these experiments are social science experiments. They don’t have one result. They check for averages. And averages are sometimes dangerous. The experiments show trends. They show tendencies. But they don’t show how all people behave in all situations. And we know that monetary rewards do work in certain circumstances. As Paul Hebert from I2I explains, although there are some accurate things in Dan Pinks’s lecture, we must be careful when taking it as saying all monetary rewards are bad. Below is his presentation on how to look at incentive reward strategies within the context of how business operates:

From all the theories of motivation I encountered to date, the one I like the most is Vroom’s expectancy theory.  The reason I like it so much is that it talks about personalization. About understanding each employee specific motivation and about customizing the right rewards, invectives, and recognition, in order to motivate him. And I think this is the most important lesson from the science and experiments. We should be careful from applying one approach. We should doubt and check if what we are doing actually works. And the most important thing of all, we should not assume what motivates people, we should find out.


7 Responses to “Is money equals motivation a conventional wisdom we have to break?”

  1. uberVU - social comments Says:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sherfelad: New Blog Post: Is money equals motivation a conventional wisdom we have to break?

  2. Conventional Wisdom and Motivation « What Motivates You? Says:

    […] Conventional Wisdom We Have to Break Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Andrie Wongso: Menulis Dari […]

  3. Wait and re-evaluate « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] people from the book Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (for the first post in the series, see here). This time I want discuss chapter […]

  4. Derek Irvine Globoforce Says:

    Great post, Elad. It’s like I said in my post earlier this week, you simply can’t test or recreate all the intricacies of recognition (and how we respond) in the lab.

  5. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Derek!
    I liked your post and I do think they talk about similar ideas. We connote disregard the lab results, but we should take them with a grain of salt and add them to our learning and understanding of how people behave.

  6. Lessons about Business in Asia – it is not different « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] if the difference in the culture has an impact on the principles of people management. Does people motivations for work differ? Does the role of a manager or a leader in these countries differ? My answer is – no, […]

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