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The mysterious case of what motivates us

Motivation is as ancient as humanity itself. Initially, you could argue, it consisted of two very simple elements: the need to survive and the urge to explore, which, reflecting on skill development, naturally led to cooperation, planning, growing, and so on. But what share did fulfillment have? Jealousy, status…love? So much has changed in the past two years, it’s strange to think of incentives in the same terms as before. Beneath the complexity of today’s societal wiring, it’s okay to wonder whether it’s possible to unearth the real, intrinsic, and personal reasons we work, dream, wake up and run the merry-go-round again. Sometimes, it seems, we don’t even know ourselves what truly motivates us.

The basic needs we inherited from our ancestors haven’t gone anywhere. Remember Maslow? According to him, they form the foundational layer in the pyramid of our needs. Once those are covered, a selection of fortunate souls moves up a step into the realm of psychological needs like esteem and relationships. These layers comprise our deficiency needs. And if we make it to the penthouse of the pyramid, we gain access to the realm of self-fulfillment, where we can finally focus on the self. Sounds great! Also sounds like a hell of a lot of effort. And that’s the mystery to solve, which in itself is one of the most powerful incentives in our lives today.

Who’s really motivated?

Curiously, in every layer of Maslow’s pyramid but the last one, deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and go away once they’re satisfied. So maybe we could say motivation decreases as these needs are met. But that’s not the case with self-fulfillment, or growth needs, where it feels like motivation only goes up once they’re met. That might mean that if we’re no longer hungry, we’re not going to search for more food, and if we’re valued, we’re less likely to seek out praise. But once we’re one-on-one with ourselves, our conscience, our ambitions, our fears—and once we’ve accomplished something that gives us a sense of meaning—we’re going to want more. Because it’s 2022 and we want the top shelf, Maslow.

Brands know this. They know how desperate we’ve become to crack the precious code of self-fulfillment. As McKinsey puts it in their 2021 report, “Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need, or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will.” You’ve been living in a black hole if you haven’t heard a company toss the term “meaning” into their marketing salad. How are brands doing with that? According to the McKinsey report, “85 percent of execs and upper management said that they are living their purpose at work, but only 15 percent of frontline managers and frontline employees agreed.” Ouch, Maslow’s summit is starting to look a little elusive.

Incentives can fix anything

Somewhere around ​​770 B.C. China began making metal coins. And before that, we bartered between ourselves:

— Nice loaf of bread.
— Nice helmet.
— I’m hungry, let’s swap.
— K, cool.

Today we’re in the business of year-end bonuses, unlimited vacation days, and catered lunches that come in biodegradable boxes. Do these things incentivize us beyond the first bite? Do they make us want to do things more willingly, more diligently, and for the long term? What can business really do to tip the balance for us? It’s probably not more swag. Because lift your hand if you’ve ever felt you’d rather have a brand represent you and your search for meaning than yourself.

Let’s zoom out for a second and get a bird’s eye view of the incentives dangling before us, carrot-and-sticking us, in our economy. First, we have tax incentives, which compel us to make buying decisions, like investing in real estate. Then there are financial incentives like stock options or sales commissions that make dollar signs pop up in our eyeballs. Third, we have subsidies to help “encourage” certain sectors, like fishing or agriculture. And tax rebates aim to make us act in certain ways, like become Tesla drivers or think “Hey, I could quit it all and become a small business owner.” Finally, we have negative incentives like fines, fees, and other wrist slappers.

But incentives go beyond the economic realm (or why else would anyone become an artist?). In their book Freakonomics (still relevant FYI), Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner mention two additional areas of incentives. In addition to economic incentives, where we seek to do what’s right for us through material means, humans are also led by social incentives, where we seek to be seen doing the right thing in order to reinforce our reputation. And third, we have moral incentives, where we seek to be seen doing the right thing to satisfy our conscience. According to the authors, the most powerful schemes hold all three types of incentives. They use the example of well-ranked Sumo wrestlers to prove this. Often, these well-paid athletes/celebrities will throw a match for an opponent who is in a must-win situation. Economic incentive: bribe. Social incentive: seen favorably within the sumo community for helping out. Moral incentive: preventing a colleague from dropping in the ranks.

Here’s another way to look at things. In her piece on motivation, Cameron Walker mentions Stefano Di Domenico, a researcher from the University of Toronto who distinguishes two types of motivation: “controlled motivation,” “when you feel you’re being ruled by outside forces like bonuses and deadlines,” and “autonomous motivation,” which refers to our self-directed search for meaning. There’s also a thought floating around that workplaces should be paying more attention to autonomous motivation by promoting it at work to make team members happier and more productive. Aha, we’re back in the realm of “meaning” again.

In his book Drive, and in a TED animated video of the same name, Daniel Pink argues that there are three aspects crucial to motivation. First, we have autonomy, which is our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance. Second is mastery, or the urge to learn and be more skilled at something. And third is purpose—the desire to do something that has meaning (there it is again!) and that is important.

But is any of this even useful? Because let’s face it, an employee’s intrinsic motivation is very difficult to control. Yes, a positive work environment is one criteria that can actively promote it. Because people who consistently receive more critical than positive feedback tend to develop self-doubt and shame as incentivizing mechanisms. In the aforementioned piece, Cameron Walker quotes Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin: “People think they’re going to shame themselves into action,” she says, “yet self-compassion helps people stay focused on their goals, reduces fear of failure and improves self-confidence, which can also improve motivation.”

Yes, staying positive. But also paying more attention to employees. According to a 2018 Cornell University study, people who were rewarded immediately and frequently were overall more interested and motivated to complete small tasks at work. The same research also concluded that after rewards were removed, the same people were still engaged and interested in their work. So there seems to be a positive relationship between instant rewards and long-term job satisfaction. Hmm.

Let’s break it down: a work experience is a transaction. Employees obtain things they deem valuable in exchange for giving up big chunks of time (their most precious asset). But what is valuable for someone who is seeking a more beautiful work experience? We have a few ideas.

Beautiful incentives we’d love to see:

Turn purpose from statement to structure.

With two principles at their core: “profits as means to an end” and “ownership equals entrepreneurship,” steward-owned businesses are showing that independence and purpose can be built into the business structure for the long run. Take Finnish sharing economy platform Sharetribe as an example. CEO Juho Makkonen writes: “Steward-ownership is a great example of how, with a few simple changes in how companies are structured and governed, we can get the benefits of capitalism without its downsides.” By the way, Juho will join us next Friday in our Resident Circle, be sure to sign up to learn more.

Share with your employees, like for real.

Empowerment as a concept is good. What’s better is making it an inherent part of a company’s structure through concepts like employee ownership. B-Corp certified environmental engineering firm EA Engineering is 100% employee-owned since 2014, and more companies are following their example. Our partners at digital product studio ustwo recently made the shift from founders-run to employee-owned, as CEO Carsten Wierwille explained: “The topic of ownership came up, because I had gone to design firms that were owned by technology outsourcing firms, which in turn were owned by private equity, so I saw the clash of cultures and incentives. I could tell them a lot of horror stories in terms of what not to do.” (If you’re interested to hear more, watch out for next month’s Resident Circle program!)

Give back to your communities.

Instead of your regular company retreat, shared activities with a pure altruistic incentive, like corporate volunteering, can be powerful for retaining trust and belonging. In 2020, our partner PwC, for example, had their interns across 14 offices develop solutions for five different nonprofit organizations—an exercise, which both served the respective causes and the bonding between team members. Or do it like BNP Paribas, where an initiative to create their own platform for volunteering resulted in 40% active employee participation—meaning 260 employees putting in 850 hours supporting local nonprofits.

Go out-of-office as a company.

Sounds scarily brave—and reasonable: if everyone unplugs at the same time, the guilt is gone and the false promise of unlimited vacation days as an incentive are passé. As reported in Axios, last year, LinkedIn gave its entire staff a week off in April; the dating app Bumble did the same in June; and pharma giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, gave its employees “two days of rest” during which the entire worldwide team was off.

Or give four days a try.

At the beginning of June more than 3,000 workers at 70 companies in the U.K. began a four-day workweek trial with no loss of pay for the next six months. As Bloomberg reports, this is the biggest pilot to take place anywhere in the world and across a variety of sectors ranging from education to workplace consultancy, food and beverage and hospitality, professional training, and more. As Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, and lead researcher on the pilot said: “the four-day week is generally considered to be a triple dividend policy–helping employees, companies, and the climate.” In what way all of this will play out, incentive-wise, we shall see.

Make wellbeing a priority, always.

While Nike’s mental health week deserved to be in all the headlines, a holistic approach to health and wellbeing—physical, mental, and emotional, is what truly becomes a regenerative incentive. Whether it’s as simple as “protected focus time,” as Japanese tech company Fujitsu is practicing; a dedicated role of Corporate Wellness Program Manager, like at computing platform Akamai; an employee program with free yoga and meditation classes, as provided by health insurer Aetna; or supporting research into psychedelic-assisted therapy, as coffee alternative provider MUD\WTR is doing.

Learn for the sake of learning.

From Google’s peer-to-peer classes, where you can learn everything from kickboxing to parenting or public speaking, to Zappos’ jam room, where team members are encouraged to learn a new instrument, expanding each other’s horizons is always worthwhile. Or go one step further and swap your job for a day with someone outside your bubble—and industry. House Resident Karel Golta, CEO of Indeed Innovation did just that, reporting that he learned a very impactful lesson.

Let people take care of their entire families.

The pandemic meant work-from-home parents needed to hold meetings while making paper airplanes under the table for their kids. Offering child care benefits to working parents provides quality care for children. What about aging parents? Same. The business that cares for family cares for the entire constellation, not just the young and healthy.

Trust the token.

Web3 is shining with the light of multiple potential benefits: decentralization, voting rights, data ownership, the vast dimensionality of the metaverse, and so on. Inside these communities, tokens can give users a real sense of ownership and “having skin in the game” (arguably better than existing rewards). Handled by smart contracts, they provide both a more transparent participation and safer benefits. And in the greater scheme of things, it looks like this rise of tokenization is a move toward what Stephen Diel called “crypto-token-as-equity-proxy-scheme,” and thus, a new generation of financial incentives. Also, as law professor Hilary J. Allen put it, comparing crypto tokens to credit default swaps: “It’s the asset itself that is synthetic—there’s no limit on the number of tokens that we can create.”

Ask people.

The one-size-fits-all incentive model is beginning to sound a little cuckoo with all we know about the different ways in which people are moved to act. Here’s an idea: start a conversation with individuals about what the company can do to help them find purpose, or meet some other need that will motivate them to bring their best selves.

So, what incentive would heighten your enjoyment of reading this Beauty Shot newsletter every week?


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