Paul Kerr, employee motivation guru and author

What’s the secret to employee motivation? Using extrinsic rewards to turn on intrinsic rewards, according to researcher and author Paul Herr.

What is more essential to drive employee motivation — rewards and recognition, or engagement?
Both, according to employee motivation expert Paul Herr. You don’t have to choose!
Instead, “combine the best of both worlds by extrinsically rewarding managers who become skilled at pressing the motivational ‘buttons’ (of employees)” — in short, using extrinsic rewards to turn on intrinsic rewards.
Herr explores this innovative approach to employee motivation in his recent Incentive Research Foundation paper, “Using Behavioral Economics Insights in Incentives, Rewards and Recognition: The Neuroscience.” You can download the paper here.
If your employees landed a major financial windfall tonight, would they still show up at work tomorrow?
Unfortunately for most of us, money will always be a factor in where we choose to work. But when you take money out of the equation, there are other things that might make us keep coming in day after day. When we care about what we do — and the people with whom we do it — work has its own rewards.
For a huge percentage of Americans, however, this is far from the case. According to the most recent Gallup polling data, nearly 51 percent of American workers are “not engaged” at work, while over 17 percent are “actively disengaged.”
These “not engaged” workers, Gallup says, “…show up and kill time, doing the minimum required with little extra effort to go out of their way for customers. They are less vigilant, more likely to miss work and change jobs when new opportunities arise.”
The “actively disengaged” are even worse. As Herr puts it, they hate their jobs and see their employers as “the enemy.”
A “disengagement epidemic” is plaguing American employers, Herr says. His goal as a researcher is to help businesses find the cure and boost employee motivation — for good.

The Benefits of Employee Motivation

Employee motivation is about more than making workers happy. When employees are engaged:

  • They are more productive and proactive.
  • They require less hand-holding from management.
  • Customers receive better service and higher-quality products.
  • Profits increase.

The data supports this. Another Gallup study found that companies with more engaged employees enjoyed almost 150 percent higher earnings-per-share than their competition.
As Paul Herr points out, if only about 33 percent of your company’s employees are engaged at work (the American average), imagine what would happen if 70 percent of them were.
“You can double productivity, double profitability, become a ‘best place to work’ in your location,” he said in a talk last year. “It’s not a small effect; it’s a big effect. Because we’re so bad at [employee motivation] now, if we get it right, there’s a big bump.”

What Biology Tells Us About Employee Motivation

Herr has been studying the science of employee motivation for nearly four decades. Humans are pleasure-seeking animals, as Herr writes in his book, “Primal Management: Unraveling the Secrets of Human Nature to Drive High Performance.” We are driven toward things that make us feel good and away from things that cause us pain.
In Herr’s view, the key to employee engagement is creating a workplace that fulfills these biological imperatives.
Our most basic biological urges are for food, oxygen, rest, protection and reproduction. But drawing on the latest neurological research, Herr describes five other “social drives.” Each of these has a role to play in motivating employees:
1. The Drive to Learn and Innovate
Whenever you grasp a difficult concept or come up with a new idea, your brain is bathed in an opiate-like substance. It’s a natural high and your brain craves it, according to the work of USC neuroscientist Irving Biederman. You’re literally addicted to knowledge.
You can trigger this rush again and again with your employees by giving them opportunities to think creatively and solve difficult problems.
2. The Drive to Acquire
In this sense, “acquire” doesn’t just mean money or physical objects. It means acquiring anything of value, including new skills.
“Anytime we develop a skill, our self-esteem ratchets upward,” Herr says.
Training, professional conferences and continuing education actually scratch an important itch we all have to become experts in our fields.
3. The Drive to Defend
This is the employee motivation button not to press, Herr says. We’re hardwired to protect what’s ours. Don’t threaten your employees’ assets — their well-being, their achievements, their relationships — and expect them to be OK with it.
4. The Drive to Bond
Love may keep us together, but the hormone oxytocin is the biological means through which it works. Close personal relationships — romantic, as well as with family, friends and others we care about — trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain, sparking a pleasurable response.
This can be a powerful motivator in the workplace. Herr encourages employers to create an environment that nurtures honest, committed relationships among colleagues.
“You come into the workplace and you all care about each other. You’re like a family,” he says. “You’re all part of the same entity.”
5. The Achievement Drive
Most of us want to do a good job, but we also want to be recognized for doing it. Our sense of accomplishment from taking on a tough challenge and overcoming it is often greatest when others acknowledge it — especially our superiors.
There are many good ways to recognize employees for their hard work. But it’s worth noting that financial incentives are not always the most motivational.
In one study, researchers found that pizza — a tangible gift — boosted employee productivity significantly more than cash bonuses. In fact, cash finished third in the study — behind pizza and compliments from the boss.
To learn more about Herr’s research into employee motivation, download his “Behavioral Economics” paper.

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