Friday, May 1, 2009

Maslow and Motivation

If I offered you $100 to read an article more intently, would it really make a difference in your actions? It would be difficult to measure this because I've asked for a change in your attitude or motivation. On the other hand, if I offered you $100 to proofread this article without missing anything, I may affect your “motivation” on this measurable goal-but researchers say this change won't last long. Eventually, financial incentives wear off and can even reduce motivation! (See Alfie Kohn's “Punished by Rewards.”)

Maslow's Hierarchy can help us understand current research on motivation. Psychologists have demonstrated that after basic needs are met (the lower two steps of the Hierarchy), the top three steps of the pyramid are needed to motivate workers. For the unemployed or someone in a position that doesn't pay enough to meet his/her needs--money could be the primary focus (and motivator). But once a worker is making enough money to satisfy their needs, raises and bonuses no longer motivate.

Does this seem untrue? Consider these examples:

While pay raises may appear to motivate workers, these are more likely tied to esteem needs. How many times have you witnessed employees become dissatisfied with their salary only after they discover a colleague's pay?

True story: a nurse told me that her supervisor offered her a bonus if she would take on a special project. “Bonnie” said that she felt insulted by the offer and said no. Have you ever had this experience? (I have.) Was it the amount of money she was offered? What caused her to feel insulted?

I think my client was offended because she really didn't need more money. Bonnie was higher up on Maslow's scale and she wanted that recognized. Imagine if I offered you a sleeping bag, saying that I wanted to make sure you were warm during these winter months. Instead of accepting the bag with gratitude, you would probably be insulted and ask yourself, “Why does Laura think that I need help keeping warm in the winter? I have enough resources to keep myself warm.” If you have a home and enough money for heat, my offer misconstrues your reality and affronts your self-esteem. (On the other hand, if I said I had an extra sleeping bag that you might want to use camping, you may happily accept the gift).

Bonnie continued her story saying that years later, a new supervisor asked her to do the same project. This manager didn't offer her any extra pay but appealed to Bonnie's skills, her chance to help the team, and her ability to handle a thorny challenge. The manager appealed to two proven motivators on Maslow's Hierarchy-to feel a sense of belonging, (third level) and to be recognized as having skills and abilities (fourth). Bonnie accepted the new duty but as she finished the story, she was shaking her head. “I feel like a dope because I could have done the same work and gotten a little extra money for it!” But Bonnie received more than money, which is why she said yes the second time.

Maslow's Hierarchy reminds us that the “soft” needs of self-actualization (doing work for its own sake because we love the work), self-esteem, and love/community, are much stronger motivators than “hard” currency.

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