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Learning & Development Blog

How to Motivate Learners Without Rewards

After college, I jumped on an airplane and flew to Switzerland to look for work with international organizations. I wanted to “keep the party going” with several other friends that had also moved overseas. We were idealistic with big ideas of “changing the world.”

Starting out, most of us stumbled into temporary administrative positions. As we compared notes, we began to observe a maddening trend. Our highest paid colleagues were often the least productive. One friend concluded that his department had hired a bevy of temps to do all of the work that the fixed-term employees, who were at the top of their pay scale and received perks such as paid home leave and educational allowances, were not doing.

It came as no surprise when I stumbled on Dan Pink’s TEDTalk on extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. Turns out that, except for mechanical, routine tasks of narrow focus, extrinsic motivators such as bonuses and rewards are actually detrimental to a worker’s motivation. Tasks requiring cognitive skills, with no clear rules or obvious solutions, are better driven by intrinsic motivators, including:

  • Autonomy. The urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery. The desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose. The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

In a recent story on National Public Radio, the shoe company Zappos put its new hires through a four-week training program to work in their call center, making what’s known as “the offer:” If the employee wishes to quit, the company will pay him or her $1,000 to leave. Why? Because the ethos of Zappos is to create an exciting and fun shopping experience for the customer, in order to encourage repeat business. A cash payout selects the employees that aren’t committed to that ethos. And here’s the kicker: only about 10% of the employees take the deal. Zappos is considering raising the stakes to increase the departure rate, so that they can ensure the best possible customer service for their clients.


This applies to learning as well. If you’re teaching a routine, mechanical task such as assembling a product or entering an order in an ERP system, success might well be rewarded with some kind of prize or bonus. But if you’re training soft skills like leadership, or facilitating a group that needs to think through a scenario and find solutions, it’s better to give them autonomy, time and resources for practice to attain mastery, and a clear purpose for what they are learning.

So there you have it; common sense is wrong. When motivating adult learners, you don’t necessarily have to pay the most; you have to create meaning and purpose for them, and then provide them with the autonomy to unleash their creativity and take action.

Just don’t tell this to my boss.

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