A case against extrinsic motivation.


I screwed up badly on this one.

Now, you’re probably thinking that my 4-year-old daughter royally botched the job and damaged the family car, perhaps leaving a scratch here and a ding there. 

If you’re prone to exaggeration, you might even go so far as to think that I was called up by child services for an instance of child labor.

The reality is much worse, but not in any way that you might imagine.

Let’s start at the beginning.

My daughter Alyson was three when she first started helping me wash the car. By help I really mean get in the way. And by wash, I mean dabbing the car’s exterior with a cloth and occasionally getting water into the interior of the car.

Such inefficiency and inefficacy is not lost on me, but rare it is that a father expects his 3-year-old to wash the car and have it restored to showroom condition.

It is but all, a bonding session between parent and child. Maybe even a life lesson in the importance of keeping your things clean and in order.

For us, washing the family car on weekends would become a bi-weekly activity, something that both of us looked forward to. All I had to do was to pick up a bucket and a couple of sponges and she would come running with an offer to help. 

Until that is, I paid her to wash my car.

Two factors played into my decision to do so in the first place:

  1. She wanted to buy a ‘Peppa Pig’ ring that cost $5.
  2. I wanted to teach her the value of money and the importance of working for what you want.

So we decided that each time she washed the car, she would get $1. She would get her ring after 5 washes, and I would have taught her that money doesn’t drop from the sky.

Can I get a win-win?

Not so fast.

You would think that with a monetary incentive, Alyson would be more excited to wash the car. Instead, by the third paid session, my daughter wanted out.

She was no longer excited by the thought of washing the car with her papa. Not even the thought of earning enough to buy the ring she very much wanted could reinstate that desire.

What had happened? Aren’t all rational human beings motivated by rewards, children included?

Did little Alyson simply grow up too fast and grew out of the activity? 

All that didn’t make sense until I dived into the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that forms the core of Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’. 

Alyson washing the family car


The Science of Motivation

In his book, Pink draws a key motivational principle from Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, where Tom pitches the whitewashing of an 810 square foot fence (ordinarily a boring and arduous task) to would-be helpers as a fun activity to do. Tom ends up getting all the help he needs and then some. 

The motivational principle is simple: work is what we are obliged to do, while play is whatever we are not obliged to do.

When we reward play, we essentially turn it into work. The extrinsic motivation given (the reward) has the effect of diminishing an individual’s intrinsic motivation and any performance or creativity associated with it.

Conversely, as we saw in Tom Sawyer’s case, we can turn what is ordinarily considered a substantial amount of work (painting the fence), into a playful activity capable of making anyone who chooses to help be fully engaged in the task. 

Pink terms this the ‘Sawyer Effect’, and it revolves around whatever turns play into work, and work into play.

Applying the Sawyer Effect to my car wash predicament — by offering to pay Alyson a dollar to wash the car, I had, in essence, turned what was once a playful and fun activity for Alyson into a dreary one that had to be paid for to be worth anyone’s while to do. 

As it turns out, there’s another explanation related to intrinsic motivation that can help explain my daughter’s sudden withdrawal from our usual bonding activity. 

By paying my daughter to wash the car, I had essentially robbed her of the joy of a purely altruistic act of service, removing a critical emotion that previously formed the basis of our bonding during each session.

Nowadays, when I ask little Alyson if she would like to wash the car on the pretext of ‘helping’ me, she flat out refuses and would prefer the company of an episode of Peppa Pig.


Rethinking How We Motivate Ourselves and Others

If there’s one obvious lesson to be gleaned from the above, it’s that extrinsic motivation in the form of monetary rewards is more often than not, insufficient as a motivator, and more worryingly, can sometimes cause more harm than good.

This could explain why so many individuals in high-paying professions — bankers, financiers and corporate lawyers, are often miserable, stressed and depressed though they are ‘rewarded’ more than most of us will ever be. 

In reality, we are all in some way driven by money. After all, most of us still need that monthly paycheck to survive. 

But while many of the jobs we hold are mundane and soul-crushing, that doesn’t mean that we can’t uncover the motivation from within that is needed to make our jobs a little more tolerable each day. 

Why not use the Sawyer Effect to our advantage, by shaping work into play?

Here are some things you can do:

1. Gamify

Have a boring job? Gamify it to make it more interesting. Compete among your co-workers in a productivity contest where the winner takes all (of the predetermined loot) at the end of the year. 

Waiting for your manager to set targets for you? Heck, set your own targets. If he increases your sales targets by 10% for the year, go one better and set your sights on 20%. 

Games are fun, after all.

2. Find Purpose & Meaning

You’ll be hard pressed to find a greater motivator than living life with purpose. We all need purpose in our lives to make meaning of it.

Finding a purpose that you can personally identify with, and which aligns with your own values makes work less like work and more like play, in the sense that you derive great satisfaction from the fulfillment of that purpose.

Even if you can’t personally identify with your organization’s mission, there’s nothing stopping you from diving deeper into your role to see how it impacts others internal or external to your organisation.

Your job could be to routinely file away the company’s documents for later retrieval. It could involve scheduling deliveries, or ordering copy paper and toner. 

No matter how trivial the job, there’s always a greater purpose to be served. You just have to uncover it for yourself.  

If it means that your organization runs smoother as a result of whatever you do, that’s purpose and meaning enough. 

3. Get Social At The Workplace

Good workplace relationships have been proven to improve employee morale and productivity.

Even if you don’t find your job particularly engaging, there are always co-workers you can count on to help bring some joy to your work environment. Harmless pranks, good ol’ water cooler conversations and sharing a mealtime can go some way towards reducing the humdrum of the work day. 

Having friends at the workplace that you can count on is definitely another reason to get out of bed and into the office every morning.

Ultimately, it is up to us to ascribe meaning to our work. When doing so, it always helps to look beyond the money.

Motivating Others

Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.” — Anne Frank

Don’t make the same mistake I did. If you are privileged to be a boss or a parent like me, it is rarely wise to use money as the primary means to motivate a person or child into doing something, no matter how beneficial the initial result(s) may be to everyone involved. In the long run, all you end up doing is giving bigger rewards in order to sustain someone’s motivation.

Instead, spend some time figuring out creative ways to unearth an individual’s inner desire without resorting to rewards, monetary or otherwise. 

Often, a simple question “How else would you like to help?” can be a powerful way to get people thinking about ways they can get involved, and on their own terms. I’ll be surprised if you didn’t find you can get more out of people this way. 


Now, can anyone tell me how I can get my daughter to wash the car with me again?

4th Generation family business entrepreneur, father to 2 beautiful children and husband to a lovely wife that is out of my league. I write to inspire, encourage and teach. Based out of Singapore, a melting pot of ideas and stories. Visit Victor at BigToSmall.com.
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4th Generation family business entrepreneur, father to 2 beautiful children and husband to a lovely wife that is out of my league. I write to inspire, encourage and teach. Based out of Singapore, a melting pot of ideas and stories. Visit Victor at BigToSmall.com.

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