Motivation: Beyond the Carrot and the Stick

Motivation: Beyond the Carrot and the Stick

I had the opportunity to kick off October doing keynote presentations at two fantastic events – the Interactive Strategies Conference in Houston (where this year’s theme was “Psych! Marketing to the Mind”) and the University of Washington’s Four Peaks Elevation Series. While they differed in specifics, both of these talks touched on the complexities of human motivation.

Motivation is a topic that seems to resonate with everyone, and I suspect it’s because, as individuals, we can’t always identify the factors that motivate our own behaviors. Introspection alone doesn’t always shed light on why we do the things we do – particularly when the things we do aren’t always in our own best interests (e.g., continuing to engage in bad habits and unhealthy behaviors even when we know better).

At Artefact, motivation is a topic that hits close to home – we’ve been hard at work these past few months crafting our point of view about the future of work, investigating the factors and environments that motivate the modern workforce. We also recently launched, and are continuing to develop features for 10,000ft, our resource planning, project management and time tracking application. One of our primary goals with 10,000ft is to give employees the autonomy and transparency they need to feel motivated and engaged in their day to day work.

Back in August I wrote about 7 key motivators of human behavior. In retrospect, I would add two additional factors to that list – factors that have come up time and time again in our own exploration of motivation at Artefact, as well as in existing theories and frameworks of human motivation: meaning and autonomy.


We’re motivated to work on tasks when we believe that our work is meaningful – if it will contribute in some way to a greater good, or if it will be somehow impactful.

Just how important is it that we perceive our work to be meaningful? When people perceive their work to be meaningful they’re more likely to do more work for less pay. Don’t believe me? Consider this example:

Researchers did a clever experiment where they invited people to come into a lab, individually, and build Lego robots. The setup was as follows: for the first robot you complete, we’ll pay you $2. For the second robot, we’ll pay you $1.89 – you’ll earn $0.11 less for each consecutive robot. Your job as a participant is to keep building robots until you decide that the costs outweigh the benefits.

They then separated participants into two conditions: in the first condition each time a participant finished building a robot the robot was left out on the table, so as the participant built more robots they accumulated a little pile of completed robots in front of them (the “meaningful” condition). In the other condition as soon as the participant finished building a robot, the researcher in the room with them immediately began disassembling the robot.

What happened? It turned out that when people saw their work being immediately disassembled they quit much earlier – meaning they didn’t keep building robots for increasingly smaller pay. In comparison, people who were in the meaningful condition built more robots on average, even though the pay was getting smaller and smaller each time. Check out the paper that describes the experiment here.


We’re motivated by our desire to be in control of our lives and to make our own decisions – not to be told what to do by others or forced to behave in a certain way due to our circumstances.

Giving people the opportunity to make active choices, instead of assigning them a task or outcome, is one way to tap into the power of autonomy. Researchers have found that when people get to make their own decisions they tend to be more satisfied with the outcomes. For example, if people are allowed to select their physician from a list of physicians, as opposed to being assigned a physician, they tend to be more satisfied with the physician and more likely to recommend him or her to a friend or family member (read more about this experiment here).

In other studies, researchers have found that when you let people make active decisions they tend to be more likely to follow through – in one experiment in a school cafeteria, some children were given a choice of two vegetables to each with their lunch, while others were assigned a vegetable and didn’t get to choose. It turned out that when you let children got to choose the vegetables they were more likely to actually eat them! (Read more about this experiment here.)

Meaning and autonomy at work: 10,000ft

At Artefact we’ve been exploring ways to promote meaning and autonomy within the design of 10,000ft – helping team members understand the impact of their work, while also promoting individuals’ abilities to make their own decisions about their contributions and time management.

One of the features that differentiates 10,000ft from other project planning tools is the complete transparency it provides team members. The rationale is that if we give team members visibility into their roles, the status of their projects, and key variables such as budget, deliverables, and responsibilities, we help them feel more invested in the success of the project.

When I log in to 10,000ft as an individual team member, I can see how my contributions impact my team’s shared goals – like our budget and key deliverables. It no longer seems like the hours I track go into a black hole, only to be referenced in a yearly evaluation – instead I see immediately how the hours I track impact my team’s progress. Complete transparency means I can see how everyone in the company is currently resourced. I can see when people are scheduled to take vacation, and I can even add my own vacation days to the schedule. As a team lead, I can use 10,000ft to see who’s available for upcoming work and select the team members I want to work with – as opposed to being assigned a team by upper management.

As a company we deeply value autonomy and purpose at Artefact, and it’s been exciting to see these values transition into the design of a digital tool.

Strategies for design

So what can we do with these insights about motivation as designers and developers of new products and services? I think there are at least two important strategies we can apply:

  1. Help people recognize the meaningfulness, impact, or purpose of the task or activity they’re doing. Avoid (metaphorically or literally) disassembling their work right in front of their eyes when a task is complete.
  2. When possible, empower people to make active choices instead of just assigning them to a task or outcome. You can craft the set of available choices, but let the user make the decision.

How do meaning and autonomy play a role in your behavior on a daily basis – in your personal life or at work? Are there other key factors that motivate human behavior that you would add to our list?