Leadership and Motivation

Being a Leader Who Can Motivate Others — Intrinsically

When will we who are privileged to lead others get this right? What IS the relationship between leadership and motivation? Is it the “carrot and stick” or is there another way — a better way?

One of my favorite web sites is TED.com, it has wonderful presentations from the cosmos to the microscopic world, from song and dance to leadership, ingenuity and creativity. All all the talks are LESS than 20 minutes in length. I invite you to check out the thousands of videos on their site. It has greatly helped me expand my horizons.

I recently ran into a great presentation by Dan Pink on motivation in which he reveals what we know about the subject and how we have gotten it wrong.

The problem is that how we run our businesses (and governments) is not supported by the research when it comes to motivation. He begins by illustrating “the candle problem”:

“[It] is used in a whole variety of experiments in behavioral science. And here’s how it works. Suppose I’m the experimenter. I bring you into a room. I give you a candle, some thumbtacks and some matches. And I say to you, ‘Your job is to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drip onto the table.’ Now what would you do?

“Eventually, after five or 10 minutes, most people figure out the solution [affixing the tack box to the wall with the tacks, then putting the candle in the box]… The key is to overcome what’s called functional fixedness. You look at that box and you see it only as a receptacle for the tacks. But it can also have this other function, as a platform for the candle. The candle problem.”

He goes on to cite the work of Sam Glucksberg at Princeton. He wanted to know about incentives. Do they help solve problems and solve them faster? To one group he said, “I’m going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem. To the second group he offered rewards, “If you’re in the top 25 percent of the fastest times, you get five dollars. If you’re the fastest of everyone we’re testing here today, you get 20 dollars.” [Now this was several years ago and even if adjusted for inflation, it’s a decent sum of money for a few minutes of work.]

“How much faster did this group solve the problem? It took them, on average, three and a half minutes longer… That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Right? If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions… Incentivize them. That’s how business works. But that’s not happening here. You’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.”

Pink tells us that this is not an aberration. Experiments like this have been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years with the same results. To Pink, this is one of the most important findings in social science — and one of the most ignored.

“If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does… it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks… mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work.” 

I repeat: A mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work.

[You can see the entire 20 minute presentation HERE.

So, this is what I found out in the early 1980s in Madison, Wisc. I found out in my research and listening to my officers that the kind of performance I wanted from them could only be gotten by giving them the means to three primary intrinsic motivators: AUTONOMY, MASTERY, and PURPOSE.

The way leaders do this is through what I call the New Leadership — “Quality Leadership” (see below) — a method and style of collaborative leading that listens to and empowers others.

All of this is in my BOOK. If you want to have high-performance, competent, and courteous employees handling customers and their problems, this is how they need to be led if you want good results.

I am still waiting for this to be the dominant style of leadership in our nation’s organizations — government and corporate. Yet the old “carrot and stick” routine remains attractive in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Why is this? One of the reasons it remains in play today is it’s the way we’ve always done it — and it doesn’t require us (leaders) to change.

For it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to permit intrinsic motivators to flourish in the workplace while practicing top-down leadership with extrinsic motivators in play.

Nevertheless, the New Leadership is essential for leaders to learn; especially police leaders.

I believe the future of having fair, competent and rule-observing police in our society is dependent upon it.



  1.  Believe in, foster and support TEAMWORK.

  2.  Be committed to the PROBLEM-SOLVING process; use it and let DATA, not emotions, drive decisions.

  3.  Seek employees INPUT before you make key decisions.

  4.  Believe that the best way to improve the quality of work or service is to ASK and LISTEN to employees who are doing the work.

  5.  Strive to develop mutual RESPECT and TRUST among employees; drive out fear.

  6.  Have a CUSTOMER orientation and focus toward employees and citizens.

  7.  Manage on the BEHAVIOR of 95% of employees and not on the 5% who cause problems.  Deal with the 5% PROMPTLY and FAIRLY.

  8.  Improve SYSTEMS and examine processes before blaming people.

  9.  Avoid “top-down,” POWER-ORIENTED decision-making whenever possible.

 10.  Encourage CREATIVITY through RISK-TAKING and be tolerant of honest MISTAKES.

 11.  Be a FACILITATOR and COACH.  Develop an OPEN atmosphere that encourages providing and accepting FEEDBACK.

 12.  With teamwork, develop with employees agreed-upon GOALS and a PLAN to achieve them.

[Couper, Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off…, p. 168]