When Getting Paid Makes You Worse at Things

We’re always looking for our dream job and whatever that consists of – money, power, pleasure or any other motivator. For lots of us, it’s trying to make enough money doing whatever we enjoy most in the world. Research into motivation, however, suggests this might be even more difficult than it sounds.

For many centuries, science (at least Western Science) only recognised two forms of motivation: biological (i.e. the need to drink, eat and reproduce) and external motivation (i.e. the rewards and punishments delivered by the environment you find yourself in). Logically that felt sensible and, as a paradigm, could be used to explain the vast majority of behaviour.

The arts, as is often the case, were ahead of the game. In 1876, Mark Twain wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, in which Tom tricks his friend into doing a task he finds particularly dull (whitewashing a large fence) by suggesting that it is actually the most exciting thing anyone could possibly do. Following on from this, Twain wrote “that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”. Further, Twain observed that the wealthy choose to do things for fun (e.g. driving horse-drawn passenger coaches) that others are paid for, “but if they recite-1l8kw8lwere offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign”. Daniel Pink – whose book “Drive” I would highly recommend and inspired various parts of this post – even decided to name this change in motivation in response to whether something is mentally classified as work or play the “Sawyer Effect”.

Twain had noticed something that it took science a fair few more decades to realise – there was a third form of motivation. There is an intrinsic pleasure in doing certain tasks, which can’t be explained by either biological need or external stimuli (although it can be influenced by someone convincing you that a task is really exciting!). In fact, I was prompted to write this post because it is that intrinsic motivation that makes me write; I enjoy the process of writing and I find it a rewarding experience in itself.

Firstly I’ll have a look at some of the science behind this form of motivation, before offering a few practical tips on how we can cultivate this motivation in the workplace.

The Science 

Anyway, when science got round to catching up, it did so by chance – another repeating trend. In 1949, Harry Harlow (alongside Margaret Harlow and Donald Meyer) was studying how different organisms learn, on this occasion by studying rhesus monkeys (before launching into his accidental discovery, it’s worth noting that Harlow did make huge progress in the studies of affection and learning). These monkeys were to solve a simple mechanical monkey-166942_1280problem and, in order to get the  monkeys comfortable with the equipment, the puzzle was placed in their cages. To the surprise of the experimenters, the monkeys immediately focused on solving the puzzle. They seemed to be showing both determination and joy. By the time the experimenters wanted to test them, they were already highly capable of solving the problem, due to their unexpected practice habits. These monkeys had not been shown how to solve the puzzle, they’d not been encouraged to do so, they’d received no reward and yet they still did it. It was in response to this that Harlow raised this intrinsic form of motivation – the “performance of the task provided intrinsic reward”.

Harlow wanted to test how strong this motivation was – could it beat out one of the two conventional motivations? He ran the same experiment again, using the same test, but providing a food reward to the trial monkeys. To his surprise the monkeys with a food reward performed worse than those without – they made more mistakes and were slower. The introduction of a reward actually reduced performance, a potentially revolutionary finding. But it was a bit too anti-establishment and no progress was made for another 20 years, when a scientist called Edward Deci decided to push at the boundaries of motivation again – this time with humans.

Intrinsic Motivation in Humans?

Deci wanted to test whether paying someone to perform a task made it intrinsically less interesting. To do this he used a Soma cube – a set of pieces that can be arranged into different shapes – and a group of university students, who he divided into two. All the students were presented with three drawings of Soma configurations and were asked to assemble them. When they had configured two, Deci left the room to, allegedly, get a fourth drawing. In reality, this was the key stage; he wanted to know what they students did when he left the room. Would they keep playing with the cube or would they do something else (various papers and magazines were left around as possible distractions)? Both groups of students had to do this every day for three days.

A Soma cube sofa
A Soma cube sofa

The difference between the two groups of students was that one would never be paid based on their performance – they received no performance related pay on any of the three days – while the other received no payment on day 1, did receive payment on day 2 and were then told that the money had run out and they would not be paid on day 3.

During the period Deci was out the room (8 minutes), the unpaid group played with the Soma cube for about 4 minutes each of the three days. The other group spent about 4 minutes on the Soma cube on Day 1, behaving similarly to the unpaid group. On Day 2 (when they were paid) they got, understandably, a lot more interested in the cube and played with the puzzle for over 5 minutes – they were trying to get a head start on the third and fourth puzzles. This was as you’d expect. The big test, however, was day 3. This group, not paid for day 3, became disinterested in the cube, only playing with it for less than 3 minutes – less than when they were paid, but also substantially less than the group who’d been unpaid all three days.

The payment of money had reduced the intrinsic interest in solving the puzzle. It delivered short term motivation and enhanced focus on Day 2, but reduced interest in it afterwards. Money was like having a sugar boost; it made things better for a while, but worse afterwards.

What can we do?

Alongside other research (such as Glucksberg, 1962 and 1964 – which showed that offering rewards reduces creativity, as people narrow their focus and reduce their ability to think laterally), this suggests that the typical offering of most employers – if you do this, then you’ll get paid that – isn’t the best, or most consistent, form of motivation (particularly as you have to keep handing over more and more money).  It is, however, the easiest and most visible form of reward, so organisations have stuck with this.

There are other options though. Given that we now know that making a task into ‘work’ both reduced productivity and creativity, we need to find ways to either make tasks less work-like or specify less of the tasks that have to be completed at work.

Let People Do More of What They Want

Google’s famous 20% time – where it allows its employees to use 20% of their time on their own projects – makes sense when combined with our learning above. Valve, the game developer, might well argue that 100% of employee time is spent on work that has some intrinsic motivation; it, theoretically at least, has a flat structure where people are free to work on whatever they want (the idea being that the best ideas draw the most people together).

By giving people this freedom you’re allowing them to spend time on what intrinsically motivates them, so they can deliver more productively and creatively. Now 20% may well be too much – it might not be industry appropriate or it might be too big a first step – but trying out a smaller percentage makes sense. It’s also worth testing, so run a trial. You don’t have to commit forever.  Finding a way to give employees time to work on things that both help the organisation and are their own choice is a real win-win.

Give People Purpose, Not Tasks

General George Patton, a US Commander during the Second World War, said of his experiences “never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surecite-eu71trprise you with their ingenuity”. By giving people direction, but not specifics for how to do their work, you can prevent tasks becoming ‘work’. This also lets people play to their strengths and bring in other people to help them reach their goal. This additional freedom, or even sense of freedom, helps maintain stable intrinsic motivation.  Further, it means people have a clearer understanding of why they’re doing their work – and we’re predisposed to wanting to know “why?”.

Create Diverse Teams

By creating teams with a wide range of skills and experiences, you generate an environment where interaction is encouraged (primarily because it’s the only way not to get left behind). This means people are often brought into the work of others, so everyone spends time working on topics outside their normal remit. This serves two purposes: you develop a greater sense of buy-in to the team’s purpose, enabling more understanding of, and motivation towards, that goal; and employees get to use previous experiences to solve current “non-work” (for them) problems. Together this means people are more likely to maintain their intrinsic motivation at work, amongst many other non-motivation related benefits.

Create a Peer-to-Peer Benefit System

As we read earlier, tasks become work when you’re rewarded for doing them. For humans in an organisational environment it’s a bit more complicated – it depends where the reward is coming from. It also depends on why you feel you’re being rewarded. If your boss gives you a pay rise because you met all the targets you were set, the tasks you were doing were most likely ‘work’. If yhandshake-442908_1280our peer gives you a bonus because they were really impressed with something you did, then that’s very different – you feel like you’re being recognised for your own skills, abilities and personality rather than doing specific tasks. By creating a peer-to-peer system, you remove the hierarchicaoval of intrinsic motivation.

Involve People in Goal Setting

If you can involve people in setting their own goals, while keeping them ambitious and aligned with the organisation’s objectives, then you’ll be able to internalise the goal. By changing targets from something that is thrust upon employees to something that they have had a role in deciding, you make that objective meaningful to the individual – they were involved so must think it is a ‘good’ thing (and due to cognitive dissonance, if they believe that they were involved, they will come to think that the target is worthwhile, even if it isn’t what they would have chosen beforehand). This can make financial and intrinsic motivation align, leading to great performance.

The Dark Triad – What can we learn from Criminals and CEOs

To some people, given the financial crisis that started in 2007, there isn’t a huge difference between those involved in organised criminality and those leading the largest commercial organisations in the world. There’s a growing body of research that suggests they may be more right than they could have anticipated – there are a group of personality traits, known as “the dark triad”, which link those with the greatest business success to those involved in the most calculated criminality. This research also suggests there’s something we can learn about how people become senior within an organisation.

First, though, an explanation of the dark triad. This model was established by Paulhus and Williams in 2002, when they proved that Narcissism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism were distinct traits. These traits are:

  • Narcissism – Admiration for oneself
  • Psychopathy – this is characterised by a lack of feelings of guilt and empathy, alongside excessively bold behaviour
  • Machiavellianism – in summary, that the end justifies the means and morality doesn’t come into decision making.

It’s fairly unsurprising that these traits are related to propensity to commit certain types of crime (e.g. Mathieu et al, 2013) – if you believe that you’re worth more than other people, don’t feel guilt, don’t have the normal inhibitions that sub-pathological (i.e. “normal”) people have and are prepared to do anything to achieve what you want, then it becomes logical to commit crime. So it seems like we should be keeping a close eye on these kinds of people, keeping them out of positions of power and doing all we can to eliminate these traits.

Given the above, it’s interesting (though given natural selection, not that uncommon for pathological conditions) to hear that having higher than average levels of these traits leads to a wide number of positives (for the individual, rather than the group- As Hogan, 2007, states the dark triad traits don’t help people to “get along”, they do help people to “get ahead”). They:

  • are perceived more favourably in the first hour after meeting someone (Paulhus, 1998)
  • have more sexual success (as defined by Linton and Wiener, 2001 – that definition was number of partners and/or children) – though there are some other elements to this, such as being more promiscuous and being less concerned about leaving a child with a single parent, which make me slightly hesitant about calling it “success”.
  • are perceived as more attractive (Dufner, Rauthmann, Czarna and Denissen, 2013)
  • obtain more resource than others, leading to competitive advantage (Campbell, Bush, Brunell and Shelton, 2005).
  • are generally happier and more positive disposition (Morf and Rhodevalt, 2001)
  • have, if highly educated, a higher income (Turner and Martinez, 1977) – although for less educated people the correlation was reversed

So why do these things help? I’ll try to use some of this evidence to give a quick breakdown of each trait, a summary of how they combine and some things we can take from each trait.


Remember all those times you wished you’d done something, but didn’t take the risk? If you had a bit more narcissism then you probably wouldn’t. In an organisational environment this has a number of advantages: a comfort networking and getting yourself noticed; the confidence that helps in sales and presentations; the self-belief to make decisions when surrounded by uncertainty; and the ego to shift paradigms and innovate (most people choose to stay within the existing framework because of the fear of being criticized for standing out from the crowd – as seen in the bystander effect). Perhaps most importantly, a healthy dose of narcissism gives people the confidence to seek and apply for new opportunities. The biggest determinant of moving up an organisation or industry is putting in that application – by definition, those who don’t apply can’t get the job. And if you believe that your the best, it doesn’t matter if you get rejected – it must be someone else’s fault because you know that you’re amazing.

This is something we could all learn from – the only way to get to wherever you want to be is to take a chance and not worry about the outcome. When you put your application in your chances might be 1%, but that’s 1% more than if you don’t apply. If you get rejected then you’ll probably get some feedback on how to get a similar job next time as well, so it’s really a win-win. Naturally, however, we’re scared of rejection – so next time you see something that you really want, take a page from the narcissist’s playbook and realise the positives almost always massively outweigh the negative.


There’s a wealth of evidence about how emotion drives irrational behaviour, so it follows that psychopaths make better decisions (in a rational, rather than social, scenario). Research by Osumi and Ohira (2010) proved this through the ultimatum game. This game hinges upon putting the initial power in one player’s hands (whether that is a genuine participant or a scientist) and testing the rationality of the second player’s reaction. The first participant is told there’s a pot of money (let’s say £10) and they can propose how this money is split between them and the second participant (e.g. £7 for them, £3 for the other person). If the offer is accepted by the second person then the money is handed out in that split. If it’s rejected, then both people get nothing. Given that this is a one-off with someone you don’t know, it’s rational for the second person to accept any offer (because otherwise they’ll get no money at all). Most people, however, reject offers at a certain level – they see it as unfair, so would rather they both got nothing. Alongside this they display an increased “electrodermal response” (they sweat more), so at both a sub-conscious and conscious level there’s a response. On the other hand, Osumi and Ohira found that people with higher levels of psychopathy both showed a lower electrodermal response and make better decisions – they accepted offers that non-psychopathic people rejected.

Those findings transfer to everyday life – we make decisions based on emotion and impulse all the time, and often regret it afterwards. The bigger the emotion behind a decision, the bigger advantage someone with psychopathic traits has – if I were deciding whether to fire 1000 people I’d think about how that would affect them and their families, obscuring my ability to decide what’s best for the organisation. A higher level of psychopathy would help me make a better decision (because, ultimately, my company going bust helps no-one). Further, psychopathy also makes people more bold, as they are less worried about what other people will think, delivering a similar stream of advantages as noted for narcissism (e.g. not having nerves when pitching to others) as well as a more exploratory approach. For a much more detailed view, see Kevin Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”. Learning to make those cool headed decisions would be a boon to us all and the experiment above highlights one way to do this – take a step back and let the unconscious response (and any somatic markers) die down before making your decision


Given Machiavellianism’s (Mach) association with doing everything necessary to achieve goals, it’s unsurprising that those displaying high Mach, also display higher motivation than others, are more focused on their goals and work harder to get there (Jones and Paulhus, 2009). The same research also showed that high Machs enjoy situations that offer the opportunity for manipulation – situations that other people often find awkward, such as negotiations and confrontations. Their focus also makes them decisive in delivering what they see as the right result, even when their are difficult decisions to be made or problems are encountered – the mental construct is that it’s worth doing anything to achieve the end result, so everything else only represents a bump in the road.

The obsession with their goal also enables high Machs to improve their skills; by clearly understanding their goals they can quickly assess where they’ve fallen down and can improve next time. This may well explain why high Machs often deliver successfully. They have always thought about life as a series of goals, while we generally tend to meander in a much less directed way. This can partly explain high Machs’ ability to charm others quickly – they understand that people enable them to achieve what they want and they’ve honed how to make that happen. In terms of success (removing any moral element from that definition), manipulating the truth is also often to an individual’s advantage – for example, when applying for a job. The reliance on interviews and written examples leaves organisations vulnerable to those who embellish their achievements, particularly as they often fail to follow up with the current organisation about the facts. Additionally, the more people that you tell these stories to, the more it becomes established as fact, by virtue of everyone knowing it (in an attempt to avoid libel charges I won’t name names, but there are a number of famous examples of people making a career off the back of these kind of lies).

Combined, these traits can leave high Machs ahead of the pack, but often to the detriment of the whole (as Campbell, Bush, Brunell and Shelton found in the research noted above). So what can we take from high Machs? I think we can take their utilitarian view to the world – sometimes we have to be prepared to do “bad” things in order to achieve the truly “great” things. It’s very difficult to keep perspective here and not become obsessive about your goal, but we naturally don’t like making decisions where we cause something bad to happen, and, on top of this, we show hyperbolic discounting (where we value things that are happening sooner disproportionately more than later). There is also something to admire in high Machs approach to networking – they don’t feel the same temerity that non-high Machs do and don’t have the same pretence about it’s purpose (obviously an event created with the intent of lots of executives coming together is meant as an opportunity to network, rather than about making friends).

The Whole Picture

Having run through each trait, it’s easy to see how these can combine, in the right quantities, into high business performers (they often have a negative impact on non-working life – for example, those displaying dark triad traits have higher rates of relationship breakdown (Morf and Rhodewalt, 2001)). A person who believes in themselves, can make big decisions, understands how to work through others, seeks out opportunities to develops their career and thrives in tense situations sounds like an ideal leader. It’s no surprise that a high number of executives display these traits (see a range of work by Oliver James). It also helps to explain why many senior executives have trouble outside their working life – their “working personality” strengths are their social life flaws.

But before we get carried away with the organisational performance of those with dark triad personalities, it’s important to note that their success is often short term and often comes at the detriment to the company as a whole (Furnham, 2010). All we can do is try to take the bits that work, discard the bits that don’t and try to watch out for the snake dressed in a suit…

Why can’t Metrics just be Indicators?

Humans like to measure things. It gives people a sense of understanding, and a related feeling of control. On the topic of measuring things, I’ve been through a range of opinions: I started believing that we just needed to improve performance metrics, so they better fit with their aims; moved to a nihilistic view that the focus on targets was negative, so removing measurements would improve performance; but I now believe that what’s most important is a level beyond that – understanding what the measurement is really measuring, what any results mean and why we should care.

Firstly, though, why the spread of the culture of measurement? Organisations do this for a number of reasons: it allows them to use targets to motivate staff; as entities get bigger, it’s more difficult to see what’s going on in your business; automation allows us to measure more than ever; they are easy to show to shareholders and other stakeholders; and, if I dare to be so bold, the more you measure, the more chance of finding a metric showing a positive trend.

So what’s the problem? Primarily that these measurements can lead to more and more negative behaviours – they can drive different parts of organisations to act against each other, actions that don’t fit with overall aims, time consuming analysis and unnecessary stress.

These issues arise for reasons such as: wanting to measure the performance of the smallest possible organisational unit clashing with the need to maximise the organisation’s overall delivery (this can lead to a lack of co-ordination between areas of the business, creating messy hand-offs and reducing overall efficiency); metrics either not measuring what they’re meant to (or thinking they measure something different); the clouding of a metric’s meaning due to uncontrollable or unforeseen variables; a misdirection of incentives and/or focus; unnecessary proliferation of data; and the creation of too many or inappropriate targets.

Those kinds of considerations led me to my first standpoint – we just need to invest more time and money in measuring the right things and that’ll lead to better results. It’s true that most organisations massively under-invest in their approach to performance metrics. It’s simple to keep using the same ones, it allows an easy comparison to other years and, potentially, across organisations and it’s easy for everyone to understand. And often the longer a metric has been in existence the less we remember about the subtleties of what’s really being measures, and the more we try to flex how we use it. Ultimately, however, I could see no way to reconcile all the different motives for metrics into one cohesive model.

Bill Walsh – the 3 time Super Bowl Champion

This led me to move towards the Bill Walsh and John Wooden philosophy that the “score will take care of itself”. This supposes that focusing on any figure will lead to negative results, even if that figure is the bottom line (in their case the final score). They suggest that the focus should be on processes rather than outputs. If all the processes are performed as well as possible, then the final result will take care of itself. It’s a powerful and empowering approach. It brings activity right down to its basic components and puts emphasis on individuals, rather than numbers. It defines success as each individual achieving as near to their potential as possible, removing ability biases that can demoralise those who are less talented (because they can never “win”) and make the more talented become lazy (because they can “win” without delivering to their potential) It’s also the approach that I would take (and do take) when coaching sport. It makes it easy to be fair, helps push people and removes pressure.

However, it can’t work everywhere – in a large organisation you can’t see every employee, so you have to rely on other people’s judgements. But that then leaves you unable to compare performance across areas because people’s standards are all different. It also works in sport because, however much you try to ignore it, there is ultimately a way to quantify how you’re doing – just look at the score. There is a clear motivation and there is quick feedback on how the team is performing. This isn’t true of a team within a larger business. Finally, it leaves you with only the most basic outputs to communicate to others – if you only have your balance sheet then it’s very difficult to explain what’s really happening.

Thinking about metrics didn’t get me too far, so I started thinking about thinking about metrics. Our workplace culture has led us to view every metric as a key performance indicator and every key performance indicator (KPI) as an output in its own right. The easiest way to justify success is to show a number that’s getting better and the clearest way to be seen as failing is to oversee a range of figures all getting worse. The more we measure the more figures that become targets and the more time we have to spend focusing on how to make them better, rather than trying to achieve real organisational goals.

We’ve forgotten that KPIs are only indicators – they show us what is happening within an organisation and help us to identify areas where we’re performing well or poorly. A change in any metric is an insight into what’s happening, but only as much as any other source of information, such as the organisation’s overall delivery or the reports that you get from your staff (let’s not pretend that numbers can be just as biased as any other sort of information). And, even worse, we increasingly believe that anything we can measure is important.

This is what ultimately leads to the negatives that I noted earlier – an over-reliance on numbers, a misunderstanding of what they reflect and a failure to explore what the numbers are showing us. To shift back to American sports, an NBA team might have their interest piqued by someone who can jump 45 inches high and run the three quarter sprint in under 3 seconds. But they’d then go and watch the player actually play.

This limits what people can achieve – they are confined to act in such a way that increases “their figures”. Not only does this mean we stop people doing what’s right, but we disengage them as well – they begin to feel a lack of trust and an inability to do what they think is best. It can also lead to us rewarding people who aren’t the most deserving – if two salespeople both pitch perfectly, but one pulls in a million pound deal, while the other can’t make a sale then we’d see the first rewarded, when really they’ve both performed identically – leading to further disengagement and encouraging inappropriate behaviours (like trying to close other people’s sales).

Some organisations are better at this than others, but I believe the vast, vast majority can improve. This can only happen by seriously looking at the figures being generated and reviewing how they’re used. This takes time and is an investment, but it enables a workforce to deliver more and leaders to make better, more informed decisions. This change has to be top-down – when you stop being assessed on non-essential metrics, then you are able to free others.

Do I believe this is an easy thing to do? No – it’s a big cultural shift and removes the illusion of having sight of all parts of a business, but I do believe it’s possible. And we still need to look for better metrics, which I’ll talk about in later posts, and maintain a focus on the process. Overall it reflects where a lot of organisational issues come from; in line with Nietzsche’s quote above, everything else starts to become more important that what we actually set out to achieve.