The Best Reward Conditions Resolve Pain

Man on rowing machineOne method to motivate someone, whether that someone is yourself or somebody else, is to offer a reward. There has been a lot of research that shows that extrinsic rewards, such as increases in pay, bonuses, or expensive gifts, have a limited ability to motivate somebody. But that doesn’t mean that rewards are entirely ineffective.

My wife is a mental health counselor who works with little kids, so she is often talking about taking strengths-based approaches and setting up rewards for good behavior. This makes just as much sense for adults as it does for kids, and so she often sets up rewards for the two of us, or encourages me to set a reward for myself. But I know myself well, and I know that extrinsic motivators have little effect on me. Buying myself something I want isn’t much of a reward when, really, I know that I could and would just buy it whenever I wanted to.

That said, over the last couple of years I have been able to identify circumstances in which extrinsic rewards do motivate me. For me, an effective reward condition will resolve some sort of pain.

Think of something you have to do regularly, some sort of chore or task that you dislike. Is there a tool or change which can make that task less painful for you? If so, you’ve just identified a reward condition that you can use to motivate you to do something else.

A recent example for me is that I decided I wanted to improve my physical fitness, and to do that I wanted to invest in a rowing machine. I had discovered at a gym that I love rowing, but I hate going to a gym, and I was going to lose my membership once I graduated college anyways. For me, there was a pain associated with not exercising (namely, continuing to gain weight and be out of shape), and also a pain associated with going to the gym, and both of these could be resolved by purchasing a rowing machine. But I set that as a condition of completing my master’s seminar paper. I couldn’t get the reward until I completed the task, and while I found writing the paper to be mundane, and boring, and not a particularly enjoyable use of my time, this reward condition was sufficiently motivating for me that I finished the work three months early.

If you are a manager, I have a feeling that if you talk with your employees about tasks that they have to do at work that are painful, and ideas they have for making those tasks less painful, you can probably generate a long list of excellent rewards. In many cases, these won’t even be financial rewards, but rather can be associated with a systemic improvement or change that helps make people’s work time more enjoyable and efficient.

So if you have read about extrinsic motivators being less effective than intrinsic motivators, that is true. But it doesn’t mean that extrinsic motivators can’t have some effect. The best extrinsic motivators will either provide an opportunity to meet an intrinsic motivation (such as providing an additional week of vacation so someone can spend more time with their family), or will resolve pain to improve overall quality of life.

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