What Can Managers Learn From Monkeys About Motivation?

I am curious about what motivates people­. My biggest driver, my motivation, is the intrinsic reward I experience when I am in an environment that allows me a lot of autonomy. In the past, when I was around people who appeared to be driven, disciplined and consistent in how they work toward something I had the tendency to feel not good enough or less than.

A saving grace for me has been taking a very deep dive into knowing my Strengths inside and out. When I discovered that Consistency and Discipline are at the bottom of my Strengths list it explained why I do not show up with those behaviors when facing a task. I no longer feel bad about not having those behaviors. Instead, I work toward an understanding of my top Strengths so I can apply them to deliver great results.

You cannot impose growth, learning and meaning. People must find it for themselves. Click To Tweet

fulfillment, intrinsic reward, survival, reward, satisfaction, basic drives, Competence, Autonomy, Relatedness, Strengths, Strengths Based Leadership, StrengthsFinder, leadership coach

The third psychological need that people have at work — after Autonomy and Relatedness — is a feeling of competence. At work, people are motivated to master tasks and learn new things.


“Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.”
— Fowler, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging

I love this definition of competence and believe, from my years of experience working with clients and the StrengthsFinder results, you feel a sense of fulfillment meeting everyday challenges when your Strengths are applied. You are more effective and productive. There is energy and ease when deploying your Strengths to meet your everyday challenges and opportunities.

In 1949, psychologist Harry Harlow placed puzzles in monkey’s cages and was surprised to find that the primates successfully solved them. Harlow saw no logical reason for them to do so. What was it that motivated them? The answer is threefold:

  1. The monkey’s survival did not depend on solving the puzzles.
  2. They did not receive reward, nor avoid punishment, for their work.
  3. They solved the puzzles because they had a desire to do so.

As to their motivation, Harlow offered a novel theory:

“The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.”

That is, the monkeys performed because they found it gratifying to solve the puzzles. They enjoyed it, and the joy of the task served as its own reward. This is how you feel when you apply your Strengths to what you are doing.

Further experiments found that offering external rewards to solve these puzzles didn’t improve performance. In fact, rewards disrupted task completion. This led Harlow to identify a third motivational drive:

Drive #1
Survival — We eat, drink and copulate to ensure our survival.

Drive #2
We seek reward and avoid punishment.

Drive #3
intrinsic — To achieve internal satisfaction.

What Motivates People?

Twenty years passed before psychologist Edward Deci, now a professor at the University of Rochester, followed up on Harlow’s studies.

In 1969, he ran a series of experiments that showed students lost intrinsic interest in an activity when money was offered as an external reward. These results surprised many behavioral scientists. Although rewards can deliver a short-term boost, the effect wears off. Even worse, rewards can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue a project.

Deci and Richard Ryan later expanded on the earlier studies. Their Self-Determination Theory proposed three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination, each of which is universal, innate and psychological:

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Psychological relatedness

Deci proposed that human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn. Unlike drives (for thirst, food and sex), these needs are never completely satisfied. Even after we attain degrees of competency, autonomy and relatedness, we still desire more.

Trying to motivate people with the promise of rewards simply is not effective. You cannot impose growth, learning and meaning upon people — they must find it for themselves. But you can introduce people to the StrengthsFinder assessment, advocate for alignment of Strengths and tasks, promote an environment where applying Strengths is nurtured and great application of Strengths is acknowledged.

What is your experience with motivating people? What are your challenges? Have you introduced your team to the StrengthsFinder? Contact me here and on LinkedIn.


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