Why internal motivation beats external rewards for change

Last week, I gave a talk to a group of 50 senior government execs about using stories to create a digital culture. Organizations of all sizes struggle with technology adoption, often suffering significant losses when they fail.

During the conversation, the moderator of the session told a short story about how he got his team to switch from email to Slack as their main communication tool. After trying unsuccessfully to make the change for a couple of years, he announced that he would no longer reply to their emails and would only respond in Slack. Apparently, it worked.

The problem with using this kind of "stick" (vs carrot) approach is that people often revert back to their old ways the first chance they get – he leaves the team, they get a new boss, move to a new job, or Slack goes down.

Hearing him tell this story reminded me of the importance of getting clear on your theory of change long before you start designing strategies and stories to get people to buy in. What do you believe works better – intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? In other words, are people more inclined to make lasting change when it gives them emotional rewards like joy, belonging and satisfaction – or external rewards like money, awards or promotions?

There are thousands of books, articles and research papers published on this topic with no clear winner in the debate.

In my own grad research on adult learning, my literature analysis on engagement and flow showed that intrinsic motivation is much more effective at getting people to act and think differently.

This ties into the trend we're seeing that suggests that our decisions and behaviour are controlled primarily by emotions, not logic. We make decisions based on how something makes us feel and then rationalize them with data.

That said, there are times when intrinsic motivation either doesn't work for everyone or doesn't work fast enough. Sometimes, leaders need to enact rules, regulations, and policies to force people to change. However, as we can see in today's polarized politics, this strategy often comes with a cost. People will obey, but grudgingly. Plus, research shows that extrinsic motivation can actually decrease one's desire to do something. And the minute they get a chance to revolt, they will.

In the conversation that followed my talk, it was clear that many of the execs on the call hadn't really thought about using intrinsic motivation as a way to get people to change. They were still stuck in colonial, patriarchal ways of thinking where the boss knows best and everyone else does what they're told. Those days are gone. One clear finding from my grad and more recent leadership research for my course at RRU was that adults want control over what they do and how they do it. They want to do work that matters to them, in a way that suits them.

It doesn't matter if you're a government exec or a non-profit ED. If we want to get people to engage with us – to change what they think, say and do for good – then we have to get to know and appeal to their internal needs.

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