In a recent online column for Fast Company, motivation expert Susan Fowler uses the metaphor of junk food to describe the shortsighted approach some managers use when motivating their direct reports—reaching for easy motivational rewards instead of digging deeper for sustainable ones.
The result is suboptimal motivation, which characterizes three out of a possible six outlooks people can have when considering a task:
- Disinterested (suboptimal): I’m not interested–it feels like a waste of time.
- External (suboptimal): I’ll do it because of a promise for more money or an enhanced status or image in the eyes of others.
- Imposed (suboptimal): I’ll do it to avoid feelings of guilt, shame, or fear from not doing it.
- Aligned (optimal): I’ll do it because it allows me to connect the task to a significant value.
- Integrated (optimal): I’ll do it because it allows me to link to a life or work purpose.
- Inherent (optimal): I’ll do it because it is something I enjoy and think would be fun.
When managers promise more money, award prizes for contests, offer rewards, threaten punishment, apply pressure, or use guilt, shame, or emotional blackmail to encourage specific behaviors from employees, they may successfully initiate new behaviors and produce results—but they fail miserably in helping people maintain their progress or sustain those results. This is the motivational junk food approach that leads to the Disinterested, External, and Imposed suboptimal outlooks.
People with high-quality motivation, on the other hand, may accept external rewards when offered, but this is clearly not the reason for their efforts. The reasons the optimally motivated employees of the world do what they do are more profound and provide more satisfaction than external rewards can deliver.
Don’t Feed Your People Motivational Junk Food
When people experience high-quality motivation, they achieve above-standard results; demonstrate enhanced creativity, collaboration, and productivity; are more likely to repeat their peak performance; and enjoy greater physical and mental health.
Providing high-quality motivation like connecting a task to significant values and/or purpose may require more thought and preparation, but it generates the high-quality energy, vitality, and positive well-being that leads to sustainable results. If you want to create a work culture that thrives, wean yourself and your people off motivational junk food and offer them healthy alternatives.
To learn more about Fowler’s approach to motivation, be sure to read her complete article at Fast Company Online, Why the Way We Motivate People—and Ourselves—Matters. Curious about your own motivational outlook and how it might be impacting your performance? Check out Fowler’s free Motivational Outlook self-assessment.