Motivation: why the carrot doesn't always stick

Erin McGee, 6 min read

Motivation: why the carrot doesn't always stick

Having a why, and why it matters.

Figuring out our ‘why’ is something we’ve been delving into at Yarno recently, and have discovered things about our aspirations and vision that have enormous influence on why we do what we do.

Without a vision, you’re fighting a horde of battles without really having an idea of why. Having a vision allows you to imagine and desire remarkable things, and seek out things that are important and actually challenge you. So this is an excellent place to start, and will ultimately define what you’ll become in the future.

An even more prevailing approach is having a mission, and not in the conventional sense of a statement that looks good beside a logo_._ This is a calling you’re passionate about, inspired to fight for, and are determined to really work at. Having a mission is wanting to have an impact, then actually putting action into this desire, wherever your fire comes from.

It’s all about effort. And the amount of effort you’re going to put into anything boils down to one thing: motivation.


Motivation is what drives us to do the things we do, whether we’re aware of it or not. It can be thought of as something that causes motion, which is a definition I love — things that move people. The tricky part is figuring out which is the best way to ‘move’ someone, whether it be yourself, someone else, or a team, whilst trying to express your best intentions. Some things will work for some, yet not for others.

In the same vein, there are things we have absolutely no reservations in getting up and doing, and others that we might find ourselves finding reasons not to…

How often have you had to do something that you were dreading, to soon find out you were actually quite ‘into’ it and wanted to do it for no other reason than your own enjoyment? And afterward, maybe you valued it, or were even proud of it?

This relates to something that one of my favourite behavioural economists (and thought leader on motivation) Dan Ariely describes as the ‘IKEA Effect’.

Let me explain it further.

You’ve driven out to the nearest IKEA, which is likely nowhere near you in the slightest. Your family, with all the kids in tow, has set out to buy some specific piece of furniture. A bed, a chest of drawers, a desk, it doesn’t matter in the end anyway.

You’ve trawled through the cleverly designed Scandinavian maze, picking up more homewares as fast as your partner can say: “Honey, I think this would be perfect for…” and after a questionable looking hot dog and what seems like a few years later you’re finally home, with a lingering feeling of resentment toward the useless stack of plywood on the living room floor.

And now, you have to assemble it yourself.

“Why are there so few words in the instructions?” You cry, “Why is everything in Swedish? What on Earth is an ÖDMJUK?!”

But alas, you persevere. You want to throw the pieces at the wall, except you realise that would just mean more DIY. Then, you begin to feel a sense of grit and determination to just get the damn thing built.

At this point, something special tends to happen:You see the stack of ill-fitting dowel and plywood for what it really is: a spectacular piece of hand-crafted art, fit for a king!

The reason it's so satisfying is because of the level of mastery that completing the task requires. Action and motivation complement each other, and achieving something that you’ve struggled with just feels _good. _ But why does it feel so good? The motivation that thrives off that feeling is what’s called intrinsic motivation — as the name suggests, from within.

But before we get into that, I want to talk about money. Makes the world go ‘round, right? Yes. Sort of, sometimes. Less so than we think.Money is probably the most commonly devoured carrot in the modern corporate world, despite evidence that it doesn’t work in the way (or to the degree) that some employers hope. It falls into the category of an extrinsic motivator, or one that comes from somewhere externally.

When extrinsic motivation doesn’t work, and when it can:

Monetary compensation works effectively for many people, for a couple of specific reasons, including:

  • To change behaviour in the short term, to achieve a specific target
  • When the task at hand is considered unenjoyable
  • To improve labour efficiency when a task is mechanical or repetitive

Yet money has been proven to be a less than optimal motivator when we’re talking about the long-term, or tasks that require a degree of creativity, lateral thinking or sensitivity. In other words, more and more tasks in our knowledge economy!

I’m not saying that money isn’t important. It is — but only until you’re paid to the point where you feel your value is being properly recognised (Or as Gneezy and Rustichini argue: ‘Pay Enough or Don’t Pay at All’).

This satisfies one of the major ‘hygiene factors’ of a job (think status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices). From this point onward, money begins to matter a lot less. In fact, it starts to dictate the way we behave in a negative way.

There have been countless studies performed to determine if money makes work more enjoyable, or the opposite, and the results conclude the latter.

For example:

If a friend asked you to help them move a few new pieces of IKEA furniture that they’d built (all by themselves!) to their new place, what would you say?

I’m going to go ahead and assume you wouldn’t think twice before saying yes.

Now, how about if your friend offered you $10 to do it?

“Bit stingy isn’t it, mate? I’m worth way more than $2 an hour!”

This works the other way too.

If your friend had offered you $500 to help him move the furniture, you’d likely focus more on the money you were going to receive at the end, rather than the value of the act of helping your friend out.

When money is added into the equation, our brain shifts from social-norms to economic-norms, whether we like it or not. The economic-norm brain does this thing called over-justification, and thinks: ‘How does this purpose serve me? Am I being compensated for my worth?’ and work can even become more difficult.

The other side of the coin

Now, there are extrinsic motivators that work. Gamification is a perfect example of the use of extrinsic motivation to help influence its intrinsic counterpart.The sort of rewards we’re talking about:

  • Badges
  • Scoring and levels
  • Leaderboards
  • Prizes

On the surface these rewards serve the purpose of attainment for somewhat selfish reasons: to collect the most badges, score the highest, win the most. But on a deeper level, they intertwine with some of our most primitive instincts:

  • Curiosity and desire for knowledge
  • Desire for standing and importance
  • Competitiveness and achievement
  • Co-operation and community

In this way, the way to achieving the desired outcome is to design the experience in a way that engages both motivations: extrinsic to the physical (or digital) rewards, and intrinsic to the internal benefits.Okay. Back to the feel-goods.

Two successful levers of intrinsic motivation:


A sense of progress makes us motivated and happy. Seeing the effort that we put into something transform into something more is inherently satisfying.

Whether it’s a developer that smashes a bug that they’ve been trying to get rid of for days, or a teacher that makes a small but meaningful breakthrough with a student, the sense of pride associated with progress carries important weight on the amount of effort that will be delivered in the future.

Company culture weighs in to this massively – if a workplace fosters collaboration and celebrates milestones, making progress can become all the more rewarding and mastery can be achieved. Our main man, Jason Fox, describes meaningful progress as the 'eternal pursuit of betterness' which is so accurate in terms of learning being a continual process.

Recognition and Feedback!

Active recognition actually releases dopamine in the brain, making us feel pride and pleasure. And when we receive recognition ourselves, we’re more likely to recognise the good work of others, too. Remember, we’re people – not machines (for now).

Giving purposeful feedback and credit where it’s due impacts enthusiasm and consequently, performance, to a huge degree. When you show a genuine interest and belief in the potential of someone, it isn’t surprising if the results become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

All in all – there’s no sure-fire way toward motivation.

I said we’re all humans, and that means we’re all different. Morals, values, likes, dislikes. But something we can be sure of is when we have a personal investment in what we’re doing, an enjoyment of the task, there’s no need to be influenced by physical reward or fear of punishment.

No sweeter carrot, no harsher stick.

Erin McGee

Erin is Yarno's trusty wordsmith and resident spreader of good vibes. You'll find her chatting up a storm in Mandarin, yelling kiai's at jujitsu and eating dark chocolate at 2pm sharp.

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