How to motivate your team (Hint: It isn't money)

Why do so many workplace and workforce 'improvements' backfire? Why do our people always seem like they're on the brink of revolt, distracted and anxious?

In the technology-driven age of lean and agile, it's humbling for management to admit that we too often fail to optimize the human element in work. We know that our teams will make or break a business, but we still struggle to truly engage them.

I recently had a fascinating conversation with my friend Dan Ariely about what really motivates teams...and how often we miss the mark. Because I'm a huge nerd for economics and behavioral psychology, I sent a cold email to Dan about three years ago, asking him a few questions, and we have been in touch since.

Dan is Duke University's world-renowned psychology and behavioral economics professor, and also the bestselling author of books like Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. He's given popular TED talks on decision making, morals, and human motivation.

He recently published another book that takes a deeper look at what motivates us, and anyone leading a team will be surprised by the insights.

Evolving the Concept of Motivation

Usually, when we think about motivation, the first thing we think about is money. The classic assumption is that harder and better work can be motivated by simply offering employees more money.

But this assumes that people are only motivated by having more money to spend on luxury and comfort.

What Dan's research has uncovered is that people can be even more strongly motivated by achievement than pleasure. Things that are difficult, complex, challenging, and sometimes painful--like running a marathon--are actually what gives us the most satisfaction and best motivation. Dan comments:

"If an alien came down to earth and saw people running a marathon, they would wonder what crime they committed and who are the cruel people punishing them this way. After all, there are no signs of happiness; only pain and misery. Nevertheless, people who run marathons do so by choice and find them incredibly important and meaningful in their lives, suggesting that we don't derive pleasure from just simple things, but those that are complex, challenging, and difficult."

What We Can Learn from the Misery of Doctors

While doctors are some of the most highly paid professionals with one of the most critical jobs, many doctors are actually unhappy. Dan did some interesting research for the Mayo Clinic to analyze the problem of doctor burnout. Multiple metrics show physicians reporting decreasing levels of happiness on a yearly basis. This not only leads to higher turnover rates, but as many as 400 physicians even commit suicide every year.

Dan makes a compelling case that the reason doctors no longer like what they do is because of a loss of autonomy and a lack of cognitive engagement. In laymen's terms, the most dynamic part of medicine - saving lives and helping people - has been taken over by a bureaucratic hell of paperwork and protocols.

Dan says, "We've turned doctors into machines in the name of efficiency, taking away their most meaningful motivation."

Why the Cubicle Experiment Backfired

Physicians are not the only people being demotivated by corporate and bureaucratic pushes for efficiency. In our conversation, Dan mentioned an unexpected finding from a recent consulting engagement he had with a company. While visiting their offices, management was enthusiastically boasting about a special seating arrangement they had created with their cubicles.

Management had hoped that removing the ownership of cubicles would motivate employees to come to work early in order to get their favorite workspaces, but the consequences were actually the opposite as intended. While the company perceived this change as innovative and ambitious, Dan uncovered the silent problem it was creating with their employees.

By embracing efficiency above all, management had made everyone feel like a temporary and replaceable worker. The lack of stability and consistency from sitting at a new desk daily made every moment in the office feel like both their first day and their last day. The company's lack of effort to create a sense of permanence with its employees left them feeling expendable, and resulted in less work and high turnover.

How to Send Employees the Right Signals to Show You Care

The consequences of the cubicle experiment illustrates a core component of what motivates people at work. We are more inclined to deliver our best performance when we feel like our boss or employer actually cares about our success and well-being.

Negative signaling from employers, or even the absence of signaling that they do care about employees, is detrimental to employees' motivation and work quality. So how can you convey this in your policies and practices?

While rewarding top performers might work well for things like sales, not going out of your way for everyone at your company can have a detrimental result on overall productivity and motivation. Similar to dating, Dan says that anything you can do to create a sense of a long-term relationship, like adding benefits such as health care and 401ks, work well. These kinds of benefits show employees that you care about their well-being, while also signaling that you're in it for the long-run.

These signals show that the company believes in a person's value and potential. Rather than making doctors feel like clerks or cubicle dwellers feel like lab rats, you should try to make each member of your team feel like an essential component of your organization. That takes self-awareness on your part, but it's a worthwhile exercise if it has a direct impact on your team's effort

Dan's research is already disrupting a number of stale management practices for organizations, ranging from small startups dealing with gifting, food, and financial decision making to some of the largest US corporations. What really sets Dan apart from other workplace futurists is that he is not glorifying new technologies or innovative strategies as an end-all solution. He is simply stressing a respect for the complexity and dignity of the people who work for you. It's as obvious as it is radical.

If you are interested to learn more about Dan Ariely's insights and analysis, check out his new book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations available from Dan's website or on Amazon.

RELATED: 25 things you should never say to your coworkers

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25 things you should never say to your coworkers
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25 things you should never say to your coworkers
You may have some strong feelings about the 2016 presidential election results, but the workplace isn't the best place to express all of them. And threatening to abandon ship doesn't exactly show you to be much of a team player.

"Don't rant and threaten to quit and move out of the country," Randall says. "Leave that to the celebrities."

Topics like politics, religion, ethnicity, and child-rearing will occasionally come up in the workplace, Randall says. But to negatively comment about any group is unwise and unprofessional, and it could get you in trouble for harassment.

Stop. Just don't.

Passionate discussions are to be expected in the workplace, but they should really be focused on work-related issues.

At the end of the day, you're at work to do work, and arguments about whose candidate was better can be distracting to both you and your coworkers. You're not doing your best work when you're more focused on defending your political stances.

Barbara Pachter, an etiquette expert and author of "The Essentials of Business Etiquette," says that drawing attention to your honesty at that moment can lead people to wonder, "Aren't you always honest with me?"

"Spread gossip, and you become labeled as a gossip," says Vicky Oliver, author of "Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots" and "Power Sales Words."

"Negative comments about a coworker to another coworker will make you look worse than the person you're talking about, and guess who will be the one who looks bad when it gets back to the person you're talking about?" Randall says.

"Why are you saying you're a bother?" Pachter asks.

And if you were truly sorry about something you haven't done yet, why would you go ahead and do it anyway?

"Excuse me. Do you have a moment?" works much better, she says.

"This question is not only unprofessional, but awkward," Randall says. "Why do you want to know? Will you complain to your boss if you find it inequitable? Or will you speak to your boss on your coworker's behalf insisting they get a raise?"

Most of us have forgotten to bring cash or our wallet to work once or twice, and, Randall says, in this rare occasion it might be OK to ask your understanding coworker to borrow some money for lunch.

"But if your wallet is always in your 'other purse,' don't be surprised if you're excluded from future lunches," she says.

A compliment isn't against the law, Randall points out, but be selective about what you compliment.

Commenting about a coworker's physical appearance is considered unprofessional, she says — and worse, could be construed as sexual harassment.

This question rarely results in a positive outcome.

"If your coworker is not pregnant, you have insulted her," Oliver says. "If she is pregnant, she probably isn't ready to discuss it yet. Keep observations like this to yourself."

"Sharing this with your coworkers may cause them to instinctively distance themselves, knowing you will no longer be a part of the team," Randall says.

"They also might unintentionally leak the information to your supervisor, which could explain your lack of productivity and absences, resulting in a poor reference or an invitation to pick up your paycheck earlier than you expected," she says.

"Except for maybe your mom or spouse, no one really wants to see or hear about peculiar rashes or any nausea-inducing medical conditions," Randall says. "Limit your sharing to a cold or headache."

Saying "I think" is sometimes acceptable, but only if you truly are unsure.

"Using 'I think' can make you appear wishy-washy," Pachter says. When you know something, state it directly: "The meeting will be at 3 p.m."

You might as well say, "It should have been me."

"The professional response would be, 'Congratulations,'" Randall says.

Flaunting your luxurious lifestyle with your colleagues may set off a jealousy epidemic, Oliver says. In general, it's best to avoid bragging about how great your life is.
"This is the grown-up world — not everyone will be invited to everything," Randall says. "Besides, are you prepared for the answer?"
"If you mean 'get together,' then say so," Randall says. "In some circles, a 'hook-up' has a sexual connotation, which could land you in a sexual-harassment seminar."
You just admitted to stealing, a cause for termination and, at the very least, loss of trust, Randall says.

"Intimate details about your personal relationships can divulge unfavorable information about you," Randall says.

Sharing intimate details about your love life falls into the "too much information" category, she says, and "if it doesn't enhance your professional image, or enrich workplace relationships, you should keep it to yourself."

Maybe your colleague or boss took credit for your work, but carping about the problem to your coworkers rarely helps, Oliver says. Instead, it's best to address the issue with the person who took credit for your idea.
Really? Sharing is caring and all, but no one at work should be that close.

"Whether the charge is legitimate or not, spreading it around will not serve you well — just ask your attorney," Randall says.

If you're really suing your employer, it's best to conduct yourself with discretion and dignity and continue to perform your duties to the best of your ability. If this becomes impossible, you should consider resigning, Randall says.

"But if this is your go-to threat when you're unhappy about something, stop it!" she says.

"Oh no you didn't! Making a negative or contrary remark about anyone's child is an absolute way to make enemies," Randall says.

Always keep your remarks about a coworker's child or children positive, or keep them to yourself.

You may think that you're giving helpful advice, but unless your coworker has asked you about your gym or how you lost weight, this topic is off limits, Randall says.

Your coworker will likely see your comments as more hurtful than helpful, and hurt feelings make for an awkward work relationship.

For some people, the subject of age is touchy, and, just like assuming someone's pregnant is a huge no-no, making assumptions and comments about someone's age rarely results in a positive outcome, Randall says.
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