How to give up control and improve performance

carrot incentiveThe traditional view is that that rewarding employees is very simple. You simply reward the behaviour you want and you punish the behaviour you don’t want: it’s a carrot and stick approach to motivation. But if you look into the science, you will find that 50 years of social science about motivation tells us it’s not that simple and that the rules are far more complex.

What the science shows us is that when you reward the behaviour you do want, you get more of it, sometimes. Equally, when you punish the behaviour you don’t want you get less of it, sometimes. But not all the time – and not nearly as often as we think we do.

In other words, if you’re in the workplace with a theory of motivation that isn’t right a lot of the time, you’re going to make some mistakes. And this is perhaps one of the reasons employees don’t leave their employer, they leave their manager.


A better solution than carrots and sticks

What the social science of motivation shows us very clearly is that for complicated, complex, creative kinds of work Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose work far better than carrots and sticks. This is something that Daniel Pink refers to in his book, ‘Drive’.

Giving people Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose makes them more engaged, and it’s a win-win situation. Employees are happier and more satisfied at work because they have some freedom, they have the ability to engage, and they are getting better at something that matters. But also, as a result of this, they perform better.

As human beings, we do not engage by being controlled. We might comply when we are being controlled but we don’t engage. But for a whole range of HR and business functions, we want engagement, not compliance.


How can we translate Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose into real-life workplace actions?

The way employees engage is by getting there under their own steam. So if you really want high performance you have to give up some control. And here are three ways to do this:


1. Involve people in goal setting

happy staff happy customersWe tend to give people their goals and objectives; we make them inherit their goals. But when people have a say in establishing their own goals they are more likely to reach them. People want to have a say in crafting their own goals, so if you involve people, even in some small way, in setting their own goals and you’ll have more people reaching those goals.



2. Using non-controlling language

Language can be very subtle, which is why it can be easy to inadvertently convey the wrong message. A lot of managers say, “must”, “need,” etc. These are kinds of controlling words. Have you ever heard a manager say, “You must do this,” or “You need to do that”? I’m sure you have. If you want engagement then you should try less controlling language, for example, phrases such as “think about” and “consider” end up being far more effective in getting people to engage than “must” or “need.” For example, you could try, “I want you to think about how…” “I want you to consider doing that.”


3. Office hours

The final tip is a fascinating technique for managers. As well as your normal meetings with your employees schedule one or two hours a week for ‘office hours’. ‘Office hours’ doesn’t involve requesting meetings but making yourself available for people to walk in without a scheduled appointment to discuss anything they like. It’s a technique often used in universities with tutors and students, and it’s very effective for engagement.


If you want your employees be more engaged in their work and perform better, start by giving up so control by involving your employees in setting their own goals, using non-controlling language and scheduling one or two hours a week for ‘office hours’. After all, when people are more engaged, they do better work.

John Sylvester

John is responsible for the motivation division of p&mm ltd and a Director on the board of the IPM. Specialising in developing, implementing and directing many large scale staff motivation, recognition and employee communications programmes.
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