The Shift of Motivation in the Workplace

Have you ever heard of Karl Duncker’s Candle Problem? It goes like this: You are given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks. Your goal is to attach the candle to the wall so that, when lit, the wax doesn’t drip onto the table below. The solution is deceptively simple but requires a bit of creative thinking. All you have to do is empty the box of tacks, attach the box to the wall, then set the candle inside it. Most people figure it out after a few minutes.

Sam Glucksberg, a psychology professor at Princeton University, used Duncker’s Candle Problem for an experiment on motivation, specifically on motivation in the workplace. Glucksberg divided his participants into two groups. The first group was told to solve the problem at their own pace. The second group was offered cash rewards for solving quickly. Which group do you think solved the puzzle faster?

It turns out, the group being timed performed about three and a half minutes slower!

Why don’t incentives motivate people?

These results weren’t unique. The experiment has been replicated, built upon, and reinvented, all with the same results: People are rarely motivated by rewards. In fact, the only time incentives do successfully motivate people are when the work involved to earn them is mechanical or menial.

This method of motivating people suited the 20th-century workforce well. Now, however, many of those mechanical jobs are automated or outsourced. 21st-century workers require more soft skills, like creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. The work we do is shifting and, with it, the things that motivate us to do that work. Extrinsic motivators, those if-then rewards, are destroying the creativity we need to solve 21st-century problems.

So what does work? The answer is simple: Intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation vs. Intrinsic Motivation

When we think of things that motivate us, we usually think about extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivation exists outside of ourselves; paychecks, vacations, treats, and any external reward falls under this category. The early industrialized world believed that people, particularly workers, were lazy. To ensure a consistent workforce, companies offered extrinsic motivators, like salaries. This kept the workers complacent and the business running smoothly.

This system works well but only in limited circumstances. It’s also built upon a totally false assumption: People aren’t lazy at all! In fact, the opposite is much more accurate; extrinsic motivation is killing our productivity!

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within us. When we’re intrinsically motivated to do something, we are doing it because we like to do it, or because it feels meaningful to us. Intrinsic motivation eliminates the need for external rewards; intrinsically motivated people work for the sake of working.

Shifting to Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

Intrinsic motivation comes from three sources: Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


20th-century thinking believed that we needed managers because, again, people were considered naturally lazy. However, self-direction works surprisingly well.

Google’s 20% Time is a fantastic example of this. The idea is that employees should dedicate 20% of their time at work to work on any project they want. 20% Time has produced some of Google’s most successful products, including Gmail and Google News.


People love things that challenge them. Challenges force our creativity to flourish. Our inclination to solve problems and improve things is what let us evolve into a species with iPhones and people living in outer space. When we come across obstacles, we kick into high gear to overcome them.


When we do work that is meaningful or that serves an obvious purpose, we feel empowered and connected to our jobs. However, mindless work with no explicit purpose or observed results makes us feel disconnected, bored, and even depressed.

The End of Salaries?

Behavioral scientists have proved again and again that our 20th-century way of motivating people at work does not meet the needs of our 21st-century workers or the work they do. As the nature of our work shifts toward creativity and complex problem-solving, the way we motivate people needs to shift with it.

This does not mean extrinsic motivation no longer has value. Until people can achieve financial security without having to work, such as through a universal basic income, people will still need and expect payment for their work. There are also plenty of other things that influence someone’s opinion of their career, like workplace culture, the flexibility of scheduling, or getting to travel.

However, when we tap into people’s intrinsic motivation and find a way to encourage people to work for work’s sake, we’ll create a workforce that can solve the incredibly complex problems of the 21st century.

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