The 4 Rs of Motivation

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management ; Vol. 53, No. 4 July-August 2010 pp. 60-61.

You are leading a project urgently needed by your organization. How can you best motivate your team to meet a demanding schedule? Should you offer bonuses if the team meets a deadline? Not according to Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009). Citing psychological research going back to Harry Harlow’s experiments with rhesus monkeys at the University of Wisconsin in 1949 and Edward Deci’s work with students at Carnegie–Mellon in 1969, Pink argues that “extrinsic” rewards—bananas or money—depress problem–solving performance. He believes that what most motivates people at work are the “intrinsic” rewards of mastering a task that engages them.

If it’s not wise to promise bonuses, what other motivational tools do you have?

Before you now decide you are better off not trying to motivate your team, let’s consider the proposition that Pink’s thesis fits some people in some contexts, but not others. This is what I’ve observed over 50 years of studying motivation, starting with the research on concept formation for my honors thesis at Harvard. In that study, I divided a group of students into those who scored high on a questionnaire measuring test anxiety and those who scored low. The students were then randomely placed in groups;some groups were promised rewards for correctly completing a task and others were not. The result: the anxious students did better at problem solving when there were no rewards, but those with low anxiety did better when stimulated by the possibility of gaining a reward. The pressure seemed to motivate them.

In the years since that research, observing people at work and leading projects, I’ve concluded that simple theories of motivation are misleading. In Why Work? (1988, 1995), I suggested that to motivate followers, leaders should employ an appropriate mix of four Rs: Responsibilities, Relationships, Rewards, Reasons. Berth Jönsson, senior consultant a Swedish marketing firm TNS Sifo, recently tested this theory with surveys of 150,000 employees at all levels of large technology corporations in more than 100 countries. Jönsson shared with me his findings, which offer a neat elaboration of my theory.


People are motivated when their responsibilities are meaningful and engage their abilities and values. The most motivating responsibilities are those that stretch and develop skills. Responsibilities are most meaningful when they fit a person’s values. A caring person is motivated by work that helps others, like teaching and mentoring. Craftsmen are motivated by the challenge to produce high–quality products. Exacting managers may be motivated by the responsibility to build the processes necessary to implement a strategy.

Jönsson finds that there is a strong correlation between satisfaction at work, which he considers an indication of motivation, and feeling that one’s capabilities are being used well. Across the different country samples, 75–80 percent of people were satisfied when they felt that their capabilities were being fully engaged. In contrast, only 40–45 percent who felt that their capabilities were not fully employed reported being satisfied.


People are motivated by good relationships with bosses, collaborators, and customers. In technology companies, people are often motivated by interaction with team members who push each other to perform. This is clearly the case with successful sports teams. Someone with strong caring values may be motivated by the chance to help colleagues or customers. Some years ago, I met an AT&T service technician who was highly motivated by her relationship with a large business customer. The customer expressed their appreciation by inviting her to company events.

For many, the relationship with the boss is paramount, determining the productivity of other relationships. Jönsson asked employees to indicate the most important factors in a “good job.” In the United States, having a good boss was number one. When I have asked managers in leadership workshops to describe the leader they have most wanted to follow, they typically describe someone who cares about them, coaches them, and listens to their ideas. In contrast, young managers have said they left a job because the boss was autocratic.


Appreciation and recognition are the kinds of rewards that strengthen motivating relationships. Of course, some people are motivated by monetary rewards. Investment bankers will exhaust themselves working for huge payoffs. And piece workers sewing garments or assembling gadgets will work harder to produce more finished products for the extra dollars. But there is no evidence that teachers will teach better to make more money or that technical staff will become more innovative if they are paid more. The promise of more money can stimulate a doctor to see more patients, but not to treat them any better. Rewarding subordinates for following orders can strengthen your authority as a boss. But it won’t motivate employees to do their jobs any better. In fact, as Pink argues, they may be demotivated by the pressure to conform.

For the employees surveyed by Jönsson, fair wages and good benefits were high on the list of what makes a good job. When people don’t feel fairly compensated compared to peers, they are resentful and turn off. However, Jönsson finds that 80–85 percent of people who receive recognition for a job well done are satisfied even if it is not monetary, compared to 45–50 percent of those who are not recognized for their work.


Reasons can be the most powerful motivators of all. Workers doing repetitive, assembly-line tasks during World War II were highly motivated because they were helping to win the war. The same work in peacetime might well be seen as unrewardingly boring. People take pride in work that contributes to the well-being of others and the common good.

Jönsson reports that Chinese workers are especially motivated because they have a sense that they work not only for themselves, but also for their country. They feel proud of being part of a winning team that is building a powerful economy. According to Jönsson, in China more than in the West, workers are interested in and aware of their company’s vision, and they see their own work in this larger context.


Returning to your challenge of motivating your team, it should now be clear that you should focus on strengthening the intrinsic motivation of team members, captured in the four Rs. Put people in roles with responsibilities that fit their values and stretch their capabilities. Make sure that relationships among team members are supportive and that conflicts don’t fester but are quickly resolved. Understand your own values and those of the people you lead so that you can strengthen your relationships with them. (You may find tests like the Strength Deployment Inventory, developed by Personal Strengths Publishing [], useful in helping to increase your understanding both of your values and strengths and of those of your team.) When your team performs successfully, provide rewards, but make sure everyone is recognized for exceptional work. And don’t forget to give your team reasons to work harder and smarter; articulate and communicate the purpose of the project, how it will serve the organization and its customers.


  • Pink, D. H. 2009. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin-Riverhead.
  • Maccoby, M. 1988. Why Work: Leading the New Generation. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Maccoby, M. 1995. Why Work: Motivating the New Workforce. Alexandria, VA: Miles River Press.

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