The Secrets Of Our Minds – Secret #4 – The psychology of motivation and creativity: 3 pitfalls to avoid.


The Secrets Of Our Minds – Secret #4 – The psychology of motivation and creativity: 3 pitfalls to avoid.




Blog, Innovation, Innovation Culture, Innovation Leadership, Innovation Psychology, Orange Squid

Hi, I’m Astrid and I’m an organisational psychologist. In psychology, we study human behaviour extensively. In this series, I’m going spill the beans on some of the psychological secrets behind our behaviour. Please use it for good…


Human motivation is one of those subjects people have been fascinated with since forever. Literature about it goes back as far as Aristotle. It’s one of those things you can’t always directly observe, it isn’t always conscious, and it isn’t something that can be directly controlled; but it’s something we’re all looking for. We nod in understanding when someone tells us they have “lost their motivation”. We don’t really know how that works, but we know what it feels like. And it isn’t good.

From a business perspective, having motivated employees is critical. And when a business wants to innovate, motivating creativity, and ultimately innovation becomes a popular item on the agenda. The tools to motivate and achieve desired behaviours haven’t changed much over time. Typically, there are carrots, and there are sticks. And that’s really it. Good behaviour gets rewarded, bad behaviour gets punished. But is this always so effective?

In an experiment with 51 three and four year olds who were all interested in drawing, researchers assigned the children (randomly) to one of three groups. The first group was told they would receive a certificate for their drawing, the second group wasn’t told about any reward, but would get the reward as a surprise, and the third group wasn’t told anything and didn’t receive anything. After observing the children’s behaviour for days researchers found a surprising result. The spontaneous drawing in children in the first group dropped significantly compared with the other two groups. The carrot had the exact opposite effect. Drawing pictures was now associated with earning rewards and not with having fun, resulting in group one being less likely to draw pictures just for fun.

This study has been replicated in many forms with anyone from young children to accomplished adults. And the results are consistent: Motivation is more complex than carrots and sticks. Especially when it comes to creativity. There are two types of motivation. Extrinsic motivation (coming from outside of you – like money, rewards) and intrinsic motivation (coming from within – you do something because it’s personally rewarding). And the two aren’t always friends. Extrinsic motivation can cancel intrinsic motivation out, resulting in the opposite behaviour we are trying to accomplish. Does this mean we should stop rewarding creative behaviour entirely? Absolutely not! But avoid these common pitfalls:

  • You have an open suggestion box/ideas platform.
    Just telling people to submit ideas, without real direction in what employees are being creative about (not giving them specific problems to solve) can decrease intrinsic motivation. To increase intrinsic motivation for creativity people need to know what they are solving and whysolving it is important. And then they need feedback. Nothing is more demotivating then submitting an idea and never hearing about it again!
  • You keep reminding people of the (material) reward they’ll get for their specific creative actions.
    People will end up feeling controlled by extrinsic factors, and lose their intrinsic motivation. Definitely reward and recognise employees for their creative work, but make the award less expected so it doesn’t diminish the motivation that comes from within.
  • Your rewards are always monetary.
    Be creative with the type of award your offering. Could you offer a popular – perhaps non-work-related – course? Can you recognise creativity informally?

If you would like any more information on motivation, recognition and rewards, or just dealing with anything innovation in general, please let me know via; I’m always up for a chat!

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