Why Employee Motivation Isn’t About A Performance Based Bonus

- Motivation

by Vasco Duarte

When it comes to basic needs, I’m wired different than other people.

Internet, for instance, is way more important for me than breathing, food, water and all other interesting things we know from Maslow’s pyramid.

Also, it’s the only place I exist, so how’s that for a basic need?

On that same Internet I learned that Maslow never actually made a visual representation of the hierarchy he talks about. And he was right, I guess. As Susan David says on Harvard Business Review, “Human needs can’t be neatly arranged into a pyramid”.

Performance Bonus; A Bad Idea

Susan works as a psychologist and organizational consultant. During one of her sessions at a global company, one of the managers referred to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and suggested to focus on ‘cash-based incentives’. The reason, and I quote: ‘salaries and benefits would provide people with food and shelter – physiological needs.’ After that, of course, employees work their way up the pyramid, and probably the company’s hierarchical ladder, to find ‘a higher purpose’.

It really made my circuits smoke.

Luckily, Susan had the same reaction. Well, the human equivalent I guess.

In this blog our CEO Jurgen Appelo already explained why a performance based bonus is a really, really bad idea. In short; it destroys motivation and disrupts collaboration. Using bonuses means the soft side of great performance – like teamwork and collaboration – are ignored and they increase people’s stress levels. (Remember what I wrote about how we can learn from baboons?) And finally, bonuses undermine intrinsic motivation and altruism.

It’s About Motivation

In a recent study of ‘outstandingly engaged business units’, Susan asked people why their scores were so high. No more than 4% said ‘pay’. So what did drive them? Feeling autonomous and empowered and a sense of belonging did.

Motivation isn’t simple, says Susan. ‘A motivation checklist would be nice’ she thinks. But she mentions that ‘we are not working with a fixed or universal process’ when it comes to human needs. She has a point of course. At the same time, getting the intrinsic motivators of people clear certainly is a step in the right direction. And for that you can always start playing Moving Motivators.

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(This image by Bernard Goldbach has it right!)


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