Try to encourage a kid to learn math by paying her for each workbook page she completes - and she'll almost certainly become more diligent in the short term and lose interest in math in the long term. Take an industrial designer who loves his work and try to get him to do better by making his pay contingent on a hit product - and he'll almost certainly work like a maniac in the short term, but become less interested in his job in the long term. As one leading behavioral science textbook puts it, "People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person's motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person's intrinsic motivation toward the activity."
Rewards, by their very nature, narrow out focus. That's helpful when there's a clear path to a solution. They help us stare ahead and race faster. But "if-then" motivators are terrible for challenges like the candle problem. As this experiment shows, the rewards narrowed people's focus and blinkered the wide view that might have allowed them to see new uses for old objects.
When Dan Ariely and his colleagues conducted their Madurai, India, performance study with a group of MIT students, they found that when the task called for "even rudimentary cognitive skills," a larger reward "led to poorer performance." But "as long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance.
Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary.
A job that's not inherently interesting can become more meaningful, and therefore more engaging, if it's part of a larger purpose. Explain why this poster is so important and why sending it out now is critical to your organization's mission.
Acknowledge that the task is boring.
This is an act of empathy, of course. And the acknowledgment will help people understand why this is the rare instance when "if-then" rewards are part of how your organization operates.
Allow people to complete the task their own way.
Think autonomy, not control. State the outcome you need. But instead of specifying precisely the way to reach it - how each poster must be rolled and how each mailing label must be affixed - give them freedom over how they do the job.
Creating a poster isn't routine. It requires conceptual, breakthrough, artistic thinking. And as we've learned, "if-then" rewards are an ideal way to squash this sort of thinking.
The people they'd aspired to be - financiers ad corporate dealmakers - weren't heroes in an epic tale, but villains in a darker story.
Here's something you can do to keep yourself motivated. At the end of each day, ask yourself whether you were better today than you were yesterday. Did you do more? Did you do it well? Or to get specific, did you learn your ten vocabulary words, make your eight sale calls, eat your five servings of fruits and vegetables, write your four pages? You don't have to be flawless each day. Instead, look for small measures of improvement such as how long you practiced your saxophone or whether you held off on checking email until your finished that report you needed to write. Reminding yourself that you don't need to be a master by day three is the best way of ensuring you will be one by day three thousand.
Begin with a diverse team
As Harvard's Teresa Amabile advises, "Set up work groups so that people will stimulate each other and learn from each other, so that they're not homogeneous in terms of their backgrounds and training. You want people who can really cross-fertilize each other's ideas."
Animate with purpose, don't motivate with rewards.
Nothing bonds a team like a shared mission. The more that people share a common cause - whether it's creating something insanely great, outperforming an outside competitor, or even changing the world - the more your group will do deeply satisfying and outstanding work.
Ask the right question
If you ask, "Can I turn around this whole organization?" the answer, unfortunately, is no. You can't. No single person can. But maybe that's not the right question. Instead, ask yourself, "Is there one thing I can do tomorrow in my own domain to make things a little better?" The answer to that is almost always yes. Start small. Pile up small wins. And worry less about changing everything than about doing something.