By Kevin C. Taylor, 2011 Conference Presenter

Motivation PhotoMotivation is a complex topic. When human performance technologists discuss motivation, many will automatically think about motivation in terms of instructional design. While learner motivation is important, it is only one part of the puzzle. Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model accounts for the role of environmental incentives, but during my graduate education, there was not much discussion about non-instructional motivation.

The discussion of motivation usually revolves around intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Personally, I am not interested in intrinsic motivation. This is not to say it is not important, but it is not part of the performance environment, at least not in a way easy to work with. Extrinsic motivation is. I have recently developed an interest in the field of behavioral economics, and while I am far from an expert on the subject, it makes sense. The main contention of the behavioral economist is that people respond to incentives in the environment. While behavioral psychologists study the psychological system of reinforcement, behavioral economists study the social mechanism of reinforcement.

In the context of the private sector the first and most obvious incentive is money. It is a powerful incentive to be sure, but it is not the perfect incentive. Studies have shown that money can incentivize behavior, but only to a point; Fredrick Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory suggests it is only a hygiene factor. Money can also incentivize the wrong behavior. Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind’s book The Smartest Guys in the Room chronicles the rise and fall of ENRON under the disastrous and greed-driven leadership of Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and a host of other unscrupulous people. By the end of their administration, Lay and Skilling had engineered a culture of avarice and unethical business practices that engineered the California energy crisis. So what is the lesson? The right mix of incentives can unleash sociopaths in business suits.

But what about incentivizing altruistic behavior? When I was an undergrad, I volunteered to do yard work for a housebound woman in her 90s for a work study program. Even after the program was over, I continued to do her yard work, every Saturday, for nearly two years. What motivated me? At first it was the symbolic value of what I was doing. Later, it was because I had made a dear friend.

Can we use incentives to internalize extrinsic motives? I think it is theoretically possible. The United States Coast Guard, like all branches of the military, includes a certain level of indoctrination in its recruit training program. They are using specific coaching and motivational strategies with recruits consistent with Edwin Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory and Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. With these theories, combined with a system of operant conditioning seen in all military training programs, the Coast Guard incentivizes its core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty.

I hope you will join me at the ISPI 2011 conference in Orlando, Florida, where I will be sharing the fascinating work we are doing on incentivizing the best performance from those who volunteer to serve.

Kevin is one of the 100+ presenters sharing their knowledge and expertise at THE Performance Improvement Conference 2011, April 10-13, in Orlando, Florida. If you would like to learn more, you may attend his 60-minute presentation, “Motivation: Research to Practice in 60 Minutes.”

McLean, B., & Elkind, P. (2003). The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron. New York: Penguin.

Kevin Taylor

About the Author
Kevin C. Taylor is the senior performance analyst for the U.S. Coast Guard Recruit Training Center in Cape May, NJ. Kevin’s interests range from organizational learning, leadership, innovation diffusion, project management, and more recently the fields of behavioral economics and the theory of memetics. He may be reached at