What Really Moves Us?

From the archive: Tory Higgins explains what managers and other leaders stand to gain by looking past simple carrot-and-stick tactics for motivating others.

January 31, 2012 | Q&A
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What’s wrong with viewing motivation as a function of the hedonic principle — that we are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain?

For thousands of years we’ve simply accepted this idea that in all cases, “carrots” motivate people to do something they want and “sticks” motivate people to stop doing something they don’t want. We all think this way: managers with their employees, parents with their children, teachers and coaches with their students. One of the reasons for writing the book is to say that while that is not wrong, it is extremely limiting.

For example?

In one of our senior executive courses, a student, a VP in the aerospace industry, talked about a failed effort to improve the safety and reliability of their products. To produce the improvements, his solution was to introduce a carrot — a bonus. But the carrot failed. Next, he tried the stick — reducing salaries if safety didn’t improve. Safety did improve, but morale dropped.

To understand why sticks worked better than carrots, you have to distinguish between what are two very different systems for dealing with pleasure and pain. In the promotion system you are trying to gain and move forward to something better. Pleasure in this case is a gain, and pain is a non-gain. In the prevention system you are concerned about security and maintaining a satisfactory status quo, rather than a gain, which could be risky and result in a loss. Pleasure in this case is maintenance, feeling secure, and pain is loss.

Improving reliability and safety is a prevention issue. Therefore, you want to put workers in a prevention mindset so that they will be vigilant and careful. That aeronautics firm’s bonus probably put staff in a promotion mindset, prompting them to care more about innovation and creativity than safety and reliability.

Can you induce these states of mind even when someone is predisposed toward one system or the other?

Yes, and it’s a real advantage for a manager, coach, or teacher to understand that. We’ve done research where success means ending up with $10 more and failure means not ending up with $10 more. In one case we frame it as a bonus, starting at zero and awarding $10 for achieving a set criteria of performance. In the other case we frame it as a potential loss, starting at $10 and deducting for mistakes. The first technique induces a promotion state and the second induces a prevention state. That aeronautics VP could have promoted safety and retained good morale by telling the developers that a certain amount of money had been set aside, but that it could be lost over the course of the year if safety goals were not met.

You don’t have to use incentives at all. Prevention also relates to duties and obligations, which have to do with relationships. If the product developers meet the people who are going to use their products, it might foster a sense of responsibility toward those people that would prompt the developers to be more vigilant in their work. 

That is related to another idea in the book, which is that people want to be effective. Would you talk about that?

Understanding how pleasure and pain relate to promotion and prevention states relates only to one way of being effective — value, or achieving desired results. Not all desired results bring hedonic pleasure: you can experience the pride of achievement, which for most people is accompanied by a lot of sweat, effort, and pain.

What the book says, in addition to that, is that we are very motivated to be effective, in ways that have nothing to do with value, but that have to do with control and truth. Control is the way you feel when you experience yourself having an effect on the world. In its most obvious form we see it in little kids jumping in puddles; you can see in their faces that they’re feeling effective and engaged. You see it in adults whenever we are manipulating things, one thing and then another and another, to make them work until we achieve the final goal.

You should set the conditions to allow employees as much as possible to be the ones who experience having the effect of managing what happens. Micromanaging does not allow employees to manage what happens; it takes away control effectiveness.

Humans are also motivated in a way like no other animal is with respect to the truth. We need to know the difference between what is real and what is imaginary, what is true and false, right and wrong. Our whole legal system, religious systems, and political ideologies are about that. And no other animal has ideological conflicts; they don’t kill each other for who owns the truth, and that has been really underestimated in the scientific literature on motivation and in people’s everyday lives. Knowing what is true versus false is a way of being effective.

How can a manager use this in a workplace context?

Because people care about the truth and establishing what is real, they care about learning. We don’t appreciate enough how strongly that can motivate people. To the extent to which you can set conditions where your employees feel that they are gaining knowledge — that could lead to higher morale and lower turnover. You don’t want to undermine that in any way.

Shared reality is another aspect to truth: humans don’t consider something to be the truth unless it is verified by others. I’m not talking about personal truths but about shared truths. It’s another reason why some performances can be more effective if they are done in teams. It is not only because team members bring diversity and different skills. If your team develops a shared understanding of something, it becomes more real. They will be more committed to it.

And how do the three elements work together?

The essence of motivation, and what has been left out of motivation science, is that value, truth, and control have to work together. It’s the fit that counts — making sure that the value, which is the goal, and the control, which is the means and the strategies, fit together.

The relationship between truth and control is another beautiful marriage: seeking truth alone, there is the possible downside of getting lost in reflection and not doing anything. So the control part says come on, truth, let’s get on with it and do something. The flip side is that control guys will make anything happen, and make all kinds of mistakes. So truth tempers control, saying, let’s just wait a bit and see what makes the most sense.

What’s an example of this in practice?

We often look at fit in terms of the kinds of leadership and management styles that work best with different kinds of employees, but fit in this case relates to locomotion, which corresponds to control, and assessment, which corresponds to truth. A high locomotor is someone who just wants to get on with it. They would rather do anything than nothing at all. A high assessor wants to critically evaluate all possible options to arrive at exactly the right answer. They would rather do nothing than do the wrong thing.

These don’t contradict each other. Research has shown that if you create a team in which everyone is a high locomotor, another team in which everyone is a high assessor, and another team that is mixed, the mixed team performed best at tasks for which speed and accuracy were both important. The locomotor team was really fast because they just got on with it, but they weren’t so accurate. The assessment team was really good on accuracy but wasn’t very fast. To produce a quality product on a deadline you need high locomotors mixed with high assessors: the mixed team was as fast as the high locomotor team and as accurate as the high assessor team. Not only do organizations with both high locomotors and high assessors perform better in team settings, but individuals perform better too.

What is the difference between what you’ve just described and your critique of Aristotle’s prescription for moderation in all things, which you say he got wrong?

I think Aristotle made a common error we humans make, the fundamental attribution error: confusing the final observable output, the behavior, with where it came from. He looked at people who were performing well and declared that people who perform well behave in a moderate way, eager but not overeager, vigilant but not overvigilant, and so on.

But if you only select people who are moderate you will not get good outcomes. Lincoln and Obama both said this about wanting to create a team of rivals in which every member of the team is a strong advocate. You don’t want a moderate advocate. It is when you combine strong locomotion and strong assessment that you end up with the kind of decision-making moderation that produces good outcomes.

E. Tory Higgins is professor of management and director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School.

E. Tory Higgins

Professor Higgins, the Stanley Schachter Professor of Psychology and Professor of Business is an expert on motivation and decision making. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is the author of Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works (Oxford) and co-author of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence (Penguin). He teaches an...

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E. Tory Higgins

"Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works"


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