If you’ve ever been offered a bonus for hitting a certain number of sales or promised yourself a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream for sweating on the StairMaster, you understand the power of extrinsic motivation.
Using an external reward to promote a desired behavior works well for getting people to try something new or complete a one-off task. But it definitely has its limitations.
Take corporate wellness programs, for instance. Most are structured to provide incentives that encourage participation. If employees visit the gym a certain number of times per month or walk 10,000 steps a day, they’re rewarded with cash bonuses, gift cards, or other prizes.
On the surface, this is a smart investment for employers. Done right, workplace health programs result in increased productivity, diminished healthcare costs, and lower absenteeism. Plus, research shows that exercise supports the creation of new brain cells and can even activate parts of the brain responsible for memory retention.
It’s not easy to get great ROI from a corporate wellbeing program, but the first step in that direction is getting people engaged. Before you invest all those dollars in rewards, make sure you’re not relying too much on extrinsic motivation and ignoring the hidden power of intrinsic motivation.
The Major Motivating Force You Could Be Missing
Although external rewards may initially get people to adopt new behaviors, extrinsic motivators lose their power over time and can even lessen a person’s internal desire to repeat an incentivized behavior. In other words, a gift card may get people to sign up for a gym membership, but it isn’t enough to keep them pounding the treadmill week after week.
For healthy behaviors to stick, companies have to intentionally introduce strategies that help stimulate employees’ intrinsic motivation. Simply put, intrinsic motivation comes from within (rather than from the desire for an external reward like money or prizes). When people are intrinsically motivated, they do something for the sheer enjoyment of the task itself — not for the promise of getting something in return.
Unsurprisingly, people who are intrinsically motivated tend to outperform those motivated by rewards. In 1949, Professor Harry F. Harlow found that monkeys that truly enjoyed solving puzzles solved them more quickly and more accurately than monkeys that were bribed with food. These findings hold true for more evolved primates, too; intrinsically motivated employees are three times more engaged than employees motivated by money.
At LifeDojo, we focus on motivation and learning for the first two weeks of our program because we understand the value of intrinsic motivation. Those two weeks are all about getting the participant to truly understand and care about his or her own motivation and to form a habit.
Although the desire to get healthier must come from within, there are ways you can design your employee wellness program to tap into intrinsic motivation:
1. Give employees a choice.
Studies show that self-determination is strongly correlated with intrinsic motivation, so it’s important to give employees some degree of freedom rather than force them into a wellness initiative. For instance, instead of replacing every workstation with a standing desk, place a few around the office for employees to try on their own.
2. Spark curiosity.
Whenever possible, pique employees’ curiosity to get them to seek more information on their own. When employees take the initiative to learn about health and wellness, it boosts engagement and makes healthy behaviors more likely to stick.
3. Create an atmosphere of teamwork.
Many people believe they’re more likely to stick with an exercise regimen if they have a workout buddy; you’ll certainly be motivated to do better. Multiple studies confirm that working out with a partner (even a virtual one) boosts performance, so cultivate an atmosphere of teamwork to heighten employees’ motivation.
Of course, extrinsic motivation still plays a role in wellness programs. If you need to offer employees an incentive to get started, don’t make the reward the central feature of the program, and make sure it’s aligned with the long-term goal.
Extrinsic rewards can be a great way to hook participants, but you need to tap into employees’ internal motivation to encourage real change. Rather than try to bribe employees to meet short-term goals, aim for high engagement through intrinsic motivation. Then, you’ll have a shot at offering a wellbeing program that gets the results you seek.
Editor's note: This post was originally published June 3, 2015, and has been updated.