This post is motivating

In my previous post I wrote about retaining people. One of the most influencing factors on retention is motivation. I would like to explore that a bit.

A motivated person does a great work, and influences others around them to become better. We would all love to have a recipe how to motivate people around us other than being motivated ourselves, but that turns out to be very complicated. How do you foster motivation and keep people motivated over time?

Paul Downey from Berkhamsted, UK [CC BY 2.0 (](source:

Paul Downey from Berkhamsted, UK [CC BY 2.0 (](source:

On Saturday I read three books

  • Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King
  • Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations by Dan Ariely
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

It surprised me to find all three of them had a lot to say about motivation, well, Ariely’s book surprised me less ;)

There are two types of motivation, intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Here is a small chart to understand the difference between them

U3079526 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] (

U3079526 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] (

In the books mentioned above, the book about Michelangelo mostly talks about the extrinsic sources of motivation Michelangelo had when offered to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo held a low opinion of painting and identified himself as a sculptor. In addition, it was mentioned he was chosen by a rival who knew he was not a master at fresco, and was set to fail. Michelangelo took the work anyway, and completed it in a way that it is a cornerstone work of high Renaissance art.

Where did Michelangelo find the motivation to take and complete such a huge work? The book mentions that the Pope was not a person you could really resist, so it is clear that was a strong extrinsic motivation. However, Michelangelo had a few very strong intrinsic motivation sources. In the Renaissance it was common that the patron decided what the ordered art will include and the artist would just execute. In Michelangelo’s case, he got a per-prepared scheme of twelve large figures of the Apostles to occupy the pendentives. But Michelangelo rejected the scheme and negotiated for a grander, much more complex scheme and was finally permitted, in his own words, “to do as I liked”. Here is the motivational source of Autonomy.

Michelangelo was not a master at fresco at the beginning and each of the initial narrative scenes took weeks to complete, but once Michelangelo got better at fresco some very complex figures completed in one day only. Here is the motivational source of Mastery.

The motivational source of Purpose in the Sistine Chapel case is fairly clear. The chapel was the site of regular meetings and Masses of an elite body of officials known as the Papal Chapel, and was opened to the public as well. Michelangelo knew the importance of his work, and intended it to be a masterpiece.

Dan Ariely Writes about motivation throughout his book, but one of my favorite parts was an experiment conducted by him and few other economists. They enlisted Intel to test different ways to motivate employees. They wondered what would make semiconductor factory workers more productive

  • A cash bonus
  • A voucher for a pizza
  • A note of thanks from their boss
  • No reward at all

Employees were given production quotas at the beginning of the day, and told they would be given the bonus if they met their goal.

Not only did cash fare the worst of the three rewards, but it had the most short-lived effect. The day after bonuses were handed out, the workers who received cash were 13% less productive then the employees who got nothing at all. The performance of the employees who received notes or pizzas stayed relatively high for a few days after their reward before gradually returning to their baseline.

It is somewhat counter-intuitive to the way we try to motivate people nowadays, but i feel it is really true. People feel more motivation when their work is recognized and valued, much more than being part of a transaction. This does not mean however I would not be happy to get a nice bonus! ;)

In the case tested by Ariely the subjects were production floor engineers. I think the effect is even stronger in the case of office worker in the knowledge age. People that are required to produce ideas and software have a less of a physical output they can look at and feel the accomplishment of the task in their hands.

Ben Horowitz writes about his ride in building and selling laudcloud, later named opsware. One of the main takeaways i took from the book was the importance of telling the truth in bad times and in good times. When you tell the truth it builds trust, when you build trust you are actually seeding motivation. But motivation can’t grow without connection to a bigger vision, a.k.a purpose. Horowitz writes quite a lot about sharing your purpose, and telling your story.

In the book Horowitz describes the time he decided to sell most of his cloud business to EDS and pivot into a software company instead of a cloud company. While doing so, the company needed to shift and he gathered his 80 employees and said he is going to ask them for six months of barely seeing their families and working crazy hours. Over the years he heard people describing that period of time as being one of their best times in their careers. When he asked why he was told people really felt they are part of something bigger. I do not suggest that working 18–20 hours a day 7 days a week is a good way to connect people to something bigger, but it is clear from the book that the people in this specific case where very happy with their decision to stay. The fact that some of them got billionaires later probably did help a bit in retrospective.

To summarize, keeping people motivated is complicated. I advice against using extrinsic motivation, and suggest leaders to draw a clear vision which is bigger than what one individual can achieve on his own. Connect people to that vision, while always saying the truth about the current status of your execution against the grand story. Once your story is laid out, let people figure out how to get there on their own and let them excel at it.