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Summary: Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does: More Breakthroughs for Leading, Energizing, and Engaging by Susan Fowler

  • This book upends conventional wisdom about workplace motivation and offers research-backed strategies to energize people and cultures.
  • Read this book to discover the keys to establishing autonomy, relatedness and competence that unlock motivation.

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does (2023) challenges preconceived notions about motivation, proposing a new perspective that transcends traditional reward and punishment systems. Discover how intrinsic drivers – autonomy, relatedness, and competence – can profoundly influence your motivation and leadership style.

Summary: Why Motivating People Doesn't Work … and What Does: More Breakthroughs for Leading, Energizing, and Engaging by Susan Fowler


Drawing on years of extensive motivational research, consultant Susan Fowler explains how managers can unleash the employees’ maximum potential without resorting to a mindless carrot-and-stick approach that creates more problems than it solves. When it comes to motivation, she explains, conventional approaches don’t work. She offers an optimum motivation approach you can use to help your employees reach higher levels of satisfaction and performance. getAbstract recommends Fowler’s iconoclastic ideas to leaders, small business owners and start-up entrepreneurs who are ready to move beyond traditional motivational techniques.


  • Leaders have a “motivation dilemma”: Companies expect them to motivate their employees, which is impossible. People must motivate themselves.
  • What matters is determining which factors motivate people and building the quality of each person’s motivation.
  • Leaders should positively influence the employee performance appraisal process so that employees will motivate themselves.
  • People rely on the appraisal process to determine what’s good for them.
  • Aligning employee motivation with the company’s motivation requires a significant change in company culture and managerial awareness.
  • Top motivation is a skill anyone, including employees, can develop.
  • Using rewards to motivate employees works in the short term but not the long term.
  • People respond to two motivators: either they have to do something or they want to do it.
  • Instead of trying to motivate people, provide “autonomy, relatedness and competence.”
  • The factors that motivate your employees may be the opposite of the factors that you want to motivate them.

Introduction: Discover strategies for lasting personal and professional motivation

Have you ever paused to consider what truly drives you in your professional journey? What sparks that fire within you to tackle each day with passion and purpose?

It’s a thought that often goes unexplored, yet it holds the key to unlocking our fullest potential. After all, in our ever-evolving world of work, it’s essential to understand that the traditional notions of motivation might not be as effective as we once thought.

So, what if there’s a different, more profound way to inspire yourself and those around you?

In this summary, we’ll dive into the essence of true motivation – exploring concepts that go beyond the simplistic view of rewards and penalties. You’ll discover how tapping into the deeper aspects of human psychology can not only transform your approach to leadership but also enrich your personal growth.

Unlocking true motivation

When it comes to motivation, there’s a common misconception that dangling the proverbial carrot or brandishing the stick is the key to driving performance. This approach, rooted in external rewards and penalties, has long been the cornerstone of traditional motivation tactics. But this method overlooks a crucial aspect of human behavior – our inherent drive and the psychological needs that fuel it.

Let’s begin by understanding why the traditional “carrots and sticks” approach falls short. On the surface, it seems logical: offer rewards to encourage good behavior, and penalties to deter the undesirable. Yet this method fails to tap into the deeper, more sustainable wellspring of motivation that lies within each of us.

At its core, true motivation is more about internal fulfillment than external incentives. It’s driven by our personal values, passions, and a sense of purpose. Consider the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Despite a highly lucrative offer from the Boston Red Sox, Beane chose to stay with the A’s. His decision wasn’t informed by the promise of wealth or prestige, but by a deeper commitment to his family and his love for the game. This example beautifully illustrates how intrinsic motivation often outweighs the allure of external rewards.

But what exactly fuels this intrinsic motivation? It boils down to three psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Autonomy is our desire to feel in control of our actions, to make choices that resonate with our personal belief system. Relatedness refers to our need to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging. Competence is about feeling capable and effective in the tasks we undertake.

The essence of this intrinsic motivation is our desire for self-determination, our need to form meaningful connections, and our urge to feel capable and effective. These elements are fundamental to our drive and happiness. For instance, a high-performing salesperson may derive more satisfaction from the problem-solving aspect of their job than from any financial reward. This satisfaction comes from feeling effective in their role and connecting their values to their work.

As leaders or managers, fostering an environment that nurtures these elements is key. This means respecting individual autonomy, setting the stage for strong relationships, and recognizing each person’s unique contributions and skills. By encouraging colleagues to infuse personal meaning into their work – and by recognizing their achievements – we can create a more motivated, engaged, and productive team.

This approach shifts the focus from external motivation tactics, which may provide short-term results, to a deeper, more sustainable form of motivation.

Rethinking the foundations of motivation

Alright, let’s dive deeper into what really makes motivation tick. It’s about understanding and embracing those three fundamental needs that drive us: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. These aren’t just theoretical concepts – they’re the core pillars that shape our engagement with the world around us. And it turns out these needs interweave to form the backbone of our motivation, impacting everything from our daily choices to our long-term aims and aspirations.

Let’s start with autonomy. It’s that empowering feeling of being in charge of your own choices and actions. Imagine the freedom and satisfaction you experience when you’re allowed to steer a project in your unique way, making decisions that resonate with your values and vision. This isn’t just about having control; it’s about owning your decisions and their outcomes, ensuring that every step you take is genuinely yours.

Next, consider relatedness. This is your intrinsic need to connect meaningfully with others. Think about a workplace where every individual feels genuinely seen, not just as colleagues but as integral members of a community. It’s about building a culture of support, understanding, and mutual respect. This relatedness transforms a group of individuals into a cohesive, dynamic team, united by shared goals.

Then there’s competence: the feeling of being effective and capable in your endeavors. Competence involves growth, mastering new skills, and overcoming challenges. Envision an environment that offers opportunities to learn, develop, and stretch your skills. This isn’t just about acknowledging your abilities – it’s about challenging them, and enabling continuous personal and professional development.

So, how can you go about fulfilling your team’s psychological needs? First, foster spaces where individual autonomy isn’t just respected but encouraged. For instance, as a leader, you can empower your team members to make decisions that align with their interests and beliefs.

Also focus on nurturing genuine work relationships. Whether it’s through team-building activities, open communication channels, or collaborative projects, try to make everyone feel like they belong and that their contributions are appreciated. This not only enhances team dynamics but also elevates individual motivation.

Finally, emphasize the importance of competence by encouraging continuous learning and development. This could be through professional development programs, mentorship opportunities, or simply creating a culture that values and rewards growth and learning.

By understanding and supporting people’s psychological needs, you can shift the focus from external incentives to helping intrinsic motivation flourish.

The dynamic nature of motivation

In the landscape of self-improvement and team management, motivation often appears as a fleeting sentiment – a momentary drive that ebbs and flows. But it makes more sense to think about motivation as a skill, just like learning a new language or mastering an instrument. It’s an ability that can be developed, honed, and integrated into both personal and professional spheres.

Consider this: What drives you to get up and face each day? Is it ambition, a sense of duty, passion, or something else entirely? Identifying these motivators is crucial in understanding what really pushes you forward. It’s about looking inward and recognizing the unique factors that ignite your drive and enthusiasm. Just as every person has their own reasons for waking up in the morning, understanding these personal motivators is the key to unlocking a more fulfilling and purpose-driven life and career.

For instance, a project manager might find their drive in the challenge of solving complex problems, while a teacher might be fueled by the joy of nurturing young minds. By identifying these core motivators, you can begin to tailor your environment and tasks to resonate more deeply with these intrinsic drives.

The next step involves adapting your motivational outlook, much like an athlete adjusting their technique for peak performance. That means realigning tasks or roles with personal aspirations. A salesperson who views their job merely as a way to earn might shift their perspective to see it as a platform for connecting with people and solving problems – thereby aligning with deeper values of connection and service. This shift in outlook transforms routine tasks into meaningful activities.

Developing a skill also means setting up the right environment for it to flourish. In the context of motivation, this translates to cultivating a space where intrinsic motivators are supported. Leaders can play a pivotal role here by promoting autonomy, acknowledging accomplishments, and connecting individual roles to the broader vision of the organization. For example, in a tech company, a team leader can encourage innovation, creativity, and self-directed growth by allowing team members to pursue projects aligned with their interests.

Amid these conceptual approaches, there are plenty of actionable steps that you can take to breathe life into the skill of motivation. It’s all about applying these insights in daily interactions and tasks. So, if you’re leading a team, start by having open conversations about individual motivations and aspirations. Incorporate regular feedback sessions that not only address performance but also focus on personal growth and satisfaction. In terms of your own development, regularly reflect on your activities – are they aligned with your core values and goals? If not, what small changes can you make to shift your perspective or approach?

As you navigate through this exploration of motivation as a skill, the thing to keep in mind is its dynamic nature – it evolves and grows with conscious effort and practice. By understanding, shifting, and creating the right environment for motivation, you can unlock a more engaged, fulfilled, and productive approach to work and life.

Fostering intrinsic rewards over external incentives

It’s time to dismantle some deep-rooted beliefs that, contrary to popular opinion, hinder rather than help in building a truly motivated workforce. Let’s take a look at how we can rethink and reshape our understanding of what truly drives people in the workplace.

Often, there’s a disconnect between what leaders believe motivates their employees and the actual motivators. Leaders tend to overemphasize external factors like wages and promotions, while employees yearn for more intrinsic rewards such as fulfilling work, opportunities for growth, and learning.

Luckily, there are a number of things you can do as a manager to rectify this gap. First, it’s crucial to acknowledge and validate the feelings of your team. Rather than dismissing emotions as irrelevant in a professional setting, understanding and addressing them can create a more empathetic and effective workplace. For example, instead of telling someone they shouldn’t feel a certain way, acknowledge what they’re feeling. This approach lays the foundation for a culture where people feel heard and seen, which in turn can boost motivation and engagement.

Another belief that needs rethinking is the notion that the sole purpose of business is to make money. While profitability is undeniably important, it shouldn’t overshadow the importance of serving both employees and customers. When the focus shifts from profit to service, it naturally leads to a more dedicated workforce. Say you make it your business’s mission to serve clients effectively – this can inspire your team to align their work with this value, thereby finding more meaning and motivation in their roles.

It’s also essential to understand the dynamic of power in leadership. Power, in its various forms, can significantly affect employees’ motivational outlooks. Whether it’s reward power, coercive power, or legitimate power, the way you wield it can either support or undermine your team’s psychological needs. Instead of relying on power to motivate, focus on empowering your employees so that they feel connected to their work and colleagues.

Finally, consider the belief that results are the be-all and end-all of business. While achieving goals is important, how these results are attained matters just as much. Prioritize meaningful results to create a culture that emphasizes not just the outcomes but the process and the people involved in achieving those outcomes.


The Two Types of Motivation

Managers worry about how to motivate employees, but they should not waste their energy. All people, including your employees, already are motivated. The question is: What specifically motivates each individual and what motivates your workforce? And while you’re asking, try three more essential questions: How deep is your employees’ motivation? What is the quality of their motivation? And what is the nature of their motivation?

“The motivation dilemma is that leaders are being held accountable to do something they cannot do – motivate others.”

Look for two types of motivation: In the first, people are motivated to do something because they must do it. It’s their job, or they are motivated to win a reward. Their egos drive them. They want to come out on top. The second example of motivation is when people want to do something. Their values inspire them. They have an admirable purpose. They want to excel, grow or learn.

The Carrot-and-Stick Approach

Managers can use this insight to unleash their employees’ maximum potential without resorting to a mindless “carrot-and-stick approach.” Watch how this dichotomy plays out: Say one salesperson works overtime to win a contest, secure a bonus and have others see him or her as top dog. Other salespeople also work overtime; they hold your services in high esteem and regard selling your product as an important purpose. They want to help your clients achieve their goals and solve their problems. That’s the kind of motivation you want to encourage. To motivate the first salesperson, your company must spend money and effort on sales contests, bonuses, and so on. If you stop these programs, the reward-oriented salesperson’s results will evaporate.

“When you activate optimal motivation for yourself, you provide more than a role model – you create a ripple effect that encourages your people’s optimal motivation.”

The carrot-or-stick approach to motivation may work in the short term, but it makes things worse over time. It works like the “pecking pigeon paradigm.” B.F. Skinner, a Harvard psychology professor and behaviorist, used elaborate experiments with pigeons to investigate motivation. By rewarding pigeons with food pellets, Skinner was able to get the birds to do just about anything he wanted. His techniques still influence how companies try to motivate people. But “people are not pigeons.” Motivation is “not something you do to people.” It simply can’t be done. People must motivate themselves.

“Misunderstanding what motivation means leads to a misapplication of techniques to make it happen.”

Researchers such as Drs. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have done eye-opening work to figure out how to drive motivation. Their studies and other research in the field show that effective motivation has nothing to do with carrots or sticks, but it has everything to do with “hope and promise” – the real drivers of motivation.

“You cannot hope to motivate people in meaningful ways if you don’t understand the levers that influence the way people are motivated.”

The traditional belief that motivating employees is a fundamental managerial task stems from confusion and mistaken ideas. Clinging to that contention lets executives hold managers responsible for motivating people. But aligning employee motivation with corporate motivation may require a significant change in corporate culture and in executive and managerial awareness.

Motivation Questions

Consider these frequently asked questions about motivation and related issues:

  • “Is there ever a time when rewards are appropriate?” – Unfortunately, yes. Rewards become necessary if people are unwilling to do the right thing. To illustrate, the FAA now offers $10,000 rewards to those who report people who aim lasers at flying planes. Lasers can blind pilots and cause planes to crash.
  • “How do I make expectations clear without” creating complexity? – As a leader, you need employees to meet their goals and deadlines. It shouldn’t be necessary to motivate them regarding these basic duties; employees should self-motivate to reach their goals.
  • What is the best way to motivate the younger generation? – You can’t motivate people, old or young. Different generations have different values. As a leader, you must help all your people – including younger employees – align their values with their peers’ best, most productive values. This alignment can lead to the development of a mutual motivational drive. In building motivation, values count most of all.
  • Why don’t contests motivate people? – You want employees to strive to achieve their goals because they understand the importance of doing so, not because they could win a contest. Motivational contests are counterproductive. They direct employees’ focus away from their daily, weekly and monthly goals and toward temporary, arbitrary competitions.
  • Why is competition ineffective in spurring motivation? – Most athletic superstars say winning isn’t their main drive. They pursue a “quest for excellence.” Often, these superstars derive tremendous enjoyment simply from their own prowess.

The “Motivation Dilemma”

Managers face a motivation dilemma. Their organizations insist they motivate employees to work hard to meet company goals. Unfortunately, since no one can motivate another person, this is impossible. That’s the dilemma. Executives and managers who want to understand motivation must understand the “appraisal process.”

“It is a mistake to think that people are not motivated. They are simply longing for needs they cannot name.”

Employees appraise things according to what matters to them. Their priorities may differ from what is important to managers and corporate leaders. The factors that motivate employees may not align with what you want them to be motivated toward accomplishing. The goals that drive their motivation may not be akin to the objectives you want to encourage.

“The real story of motivation is that people are learners who long to grow, enjoy their work, be productive, make positive contributions and build lasting relationships.”

In 2002, the Boston Red Sox wanted to lure Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane to come work for them. They offered him what then would have been the largest GM salary in baseball. They were shocked when he turned it down. But Beane appraised the offer against what mattered to him – “his family and the love of baseball.”

“It is time to stop beating our people with carrots and sticks and embrace different, more effective leadership strategies.”

Beane never cared about money, so the Red Sox’s huge salary offer meant little to him. They couldn’t motivate him because he was already motivated, but in a different way than the Red Sox wanted. This is always the problem when you try to motivate people. They already are motivated, sometimes in ways you may not like.

“Rewards may help people initiate new and healthy behaviors, but they fail miserably in helping people maintain their progress or sustain results.”

However, you want your employees’ individual motivations to align with your firm’s goals. But now you understand that trying to leverage “motivational forces” to compel people to do as you want won’t work. So, how can you align their goals and the company’s goals?

First, understand that your employees are learners, they want to do well, they want to make solid contributions and they want their organization’s executives to think well of them. They also want to achieve “autonomy, relatedness and competence” (ARC) – essential psychological needs.

“Setting measurable goals and outcomes is important. Having a defined finish line in front of you can be positively compelling.”

Instead of offering contests or prizes, encourage your employees by enabling them to gain autonomy. That is the secret to motivation.

Offer independence. Relate to them as human beings. Help them grow professionally and personally. Don’t worry about what they can do for you. Worry about what you can do for them. In that environment, your employees will become more motivated to perform better. When you offer autonomy, relate to them as people and encourage their competence – they’ll respond. That’s simple human nature.

The “Spectrum of Motivation”

If people are already motivated, how motivated are they? The answer lies in the six “motivational outlooks” on the spectrum of motivation. These outlooks do not form a continuum. At one moment, you might operate with one particular motivational outlook. Later, you may operate with an entirely different one.

“Every day, your employees’ appraisal of their workplace leaves them with or without a positive sense of well-being. Their well-being determines their intentions, and intentions are the greatest predictors of behavior.”

To illustrate how motivational outlooks work, consider them in light of a routine meeting where six different employees are each operating individually based on a different mode of motivation:

  • “Disinterested” – Employee number one hated the meeting and considered it a giant waste of time.
  • “External” – Employee number two leveraged the meeting to exhibit his power and status within the organization.
  • “Imposed” – Employee number three attended because she worried her managers would be angry if she didn’t show up.
  • “Aligned” – Employee number four loved attending, and felt he gained valuable knowledge.
  • “Integrated” – Employee number five enjoyed the meeting because her life has a noble purpose, and the meeting focused on that purpose.
  • “Inherent” – Employee number six is gregarious, loves being around people and attends all meetings, including this one.

“The quality of your beliefs determines the quality of your leadership values. Your leadership values ultimately determine how you lead and the quality of the workplace you create.”

The first three motivational outlooks are in the suboptimal motivation category; they represent “low-quality motivation” or “motivational junk food.” People operating based on suboptimal motivational modes often say things like, “I have to, I must, I should, I am required to, it is necessary” and “because it is my duty.”

“Not all beliefs are values, but all values are beliefs.”

The remaining three motivational outlooks are optimal. They show the kind of motivation you want – for yourself, your employees and the people you care about. They’re motivational “health food.” Outlooks based on alignment, integration and inherent motivation “generate high-quality energy, vitality and positive well-being that leads to sustainable results.” People with optimal motivational outlooks often say, “I get to, I have decided to, I am lucky to” and “I elect to.”

“External Motivators”

Organizations sometimes default to external motivators to influence their employees. These motivators include “money, incentives or a big office or title,” which are tangible, or “approval, status, shame or fear,” which are intangible. These forces work directly against the important psychological requirements employees have for autonomy, relatedness and competence. External motivators actually undermine motivation.

“Great leadership takes great practice. When it comes to motivation, leadership practice includes being a role model.”

External motivators can take control over your employees, driving and compelling them to act in a certain way, thus robbing them of autonomy. Eventually, employees come to resent this loss of control. A self-defeating inherent message accompanies any external motivator: “If you do as I say, then I will reward you.” This ham-handed message can gain only temporary, “conditional support” from your employees.

Optimal Motivation

For most organizations, motivation is what their employees can do for them. But this reverses crucial priorities. The magic of motivation kicks into overdrive when managers address what they can do for their employees. Answering that question fulfills one of the basic rules of motivation: “When you focus on what you want for people, you are more likely to get the results you want from people.”

Instead of trying to drive or control your employees with carrots and sticks, or pigeon pellets, help promote thriving employees by meeting their crucial autonomy, relatedness and competence psychological needs, their “basic desire to thrive.” Organizations need to move beyond a strict focus on corporate priorities – “results, performance and productivity.”

When companies focus instead on autonomy, relatedness and competence, they and their people benefit. Organizations that focus on ARC develop self-governing employees who believe in accountability. Such companies promote strong personal relationships, which motivate exemplary “citizenship behaviors” among employees. This emphasis on competence and professional development helps create and sustain learning organizations.

Organizations should help their employees “understand why they are motivated.” Adopting a motivational strategy based on ARC values ensures that your employees have an optimal motivational outlook. When leaders model this attitude, it can become a defining characteristic of your organization, a win-win-win for employees, managers and the company.


True motivation extends beyond the traditional “carrots and sticks” approach, delving into the intrinsic drives of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. These core psychological needs are vital for fostering genuine motivation, both in personal and professional realms. By acknowledging and validating emotions – and shifting focus from profit to service – leaders can create environments where intrinsic motivators thrive. This approach not only enhances motivation but also builds a more engaged and productive workforce.

About the Author

Susan Fowler, the lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Company’s optimal motivation program, has more than 30 years’ experience as a leadership researcher, consultant and coach in more than 30 countries.


Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, Management, Leadership, Career Success, Business, Organizational behavior, Psychology, Productivity, Corporate culture, Human resources, Workplace culture, Self-help


Susan Fowler, an organizational consultant, argues that trying to motivate people is an ineffective strategy for inspiring engagement and performance. She explains that motivation is an internal, personal process that cannot be externally provided or created. Instead, leaders should focus on structuring an energizing work environment through establishing autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Fowler details key strategies for creating energizing environments, such as fostering a culture of authentic appreciation, designing spaces for casual social interactions, granting employees discretion and authority over their tasks, aligning jobs with deeper purpose, and enhancing flow. She provides examples demonstrating how these approaches have successfully increased motivation and performance in companies like Zappos, Mayo Clinic, and DaVita.

Overall, Fowler makes a strong case that leaders should shift from ineffective carrots-and-sticks motivation tactics to establishing the underlying environmental conditions that allow motivation to organically thrive. The book is thoroughly researched and full of actionable advice for management teams aiming to boost organizational energy, passion, and productivity.

Nina Norman is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. She has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Nina has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. She is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Nina lives in London, England with her husband and two children. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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