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Motivation considerations: What do you need to know about motivation?

Aug 18, 2015

Written by: Tim Houlihan
(View Author Bio)

Motivation drivers men hiking snow mountain BI WORLDWIDE Latin America.


At BI WORLDWIDE, we use the principles of behavioral economics to create the best engagement strategies on the planet. We work with expert academics who advise us on the latest research on human behavior, engagement and decision-making. We use non-cash rewards and recognition to engage and motivate employees and sales teams. Check out our case study library to see how our customized and results-driven solutions have helped clients all over the world.

Motivation has many sources. Simply put, motivation boils down to people taking action because people want to. The question then becomes what can we do to cause people to be motivated to take action?

“Preference and the decision to take action are separate psychological transactions.” –Scott Jeffrey, PhD.

Preferences vs. Actions

A noted researcher in the field of behavioral research stated that “Preference and the decision to take action are separate psychological transactions.”i In several studies, researchers found that people believe that money is the most motivating reward because it’s the most rational of choices and the most fungible of all rewardsii. However, the same researchers have discovered that the biggest improvements in performance come from non-monetary awards and not cash or cash equivalents.

The Power of Irrational Behavior

If we always acted rationally, we’d never have credit card debt, never eat chocolate ice cream, and never run marathons. We do these things for irrational reasons. We give in to desires that outstrip our financial wellbeing, to the pleasure of ice cream in our mouth, and for the t-shirt at the end of the race. None of these actions is done for monetary purposes and they are the de facto definition of irrational behavior. It’s okay—it’s who we are as human beingsiii.

Irrational – or what some consider emotionally driven—behavior is the key to influencing behavior changeiv. In several corporate studies including participants from tire sales people to retail clerks to call center employees, BI WORLDWIDE has observed that irrational desires cause more positive changes in behavior (and hence performance) than the rational desire to learn more money (or cash equivalents).

Keeping Up With the Joneses

We are drawn to comparing ourselves to others and researchers find that keeping up with the Joneses is a powerful social motivatorv. How do we really know that we are or are not keeping up? Perceptions are all we have. We judge others—and believe that we are judged —by the stuff we have. Earning an extra $50 doesn’t create a lift in status and will not get discussed at the water cooler; however, new sunglasses can be bragged about in the office as being “a gift from my company.”

The Power of Accumulation

Point-based programs have been around since the start of the 20th century and became prevalent with the advent of frequent flier programs. Frequent fliers tend to focus on the effort needed to get to their next goal (the free ticket, the upgrade, etc.) and not the monetary value of the miles. Most people don’t even know the explicit monetary value of the miles they’re accumulating. If they thought about the actual monetary value of spending an extra 15 minutes in the car driving to the partner hotel to earn 500 miles, most would reconsider their effort and make alternative plans.

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Tim Houlihan at BI WORLDWIDE

Tim Houlihan

Vice President
Reward Systems Group

For more than 25 years, Tim Houlihan has indulged his curiosities of human behavior in the workplace. He passionately pursues answers to questions such as “why do some people work harder than others?” and “why do some people set and achieve goals?” and acknowledges that behavioral economics holds excellent explanations for some of these mysteries. As the Vice President of Reward Systems at BIW, Tim is responsible for leading the development of innovative reward systems. He partners with academic colleagues from leading universities around the world and he is actively engaged with leaders in Fortune 1000 companies to develop solutions for the human side of business problems.