Friday, August 8, 2008

Getting Motivated

"Paychecks and pink slips might be powerful reasons to get out of bed each day, but they turn out to be surprisingly ineffective -- and even counterproductive -- in getting people to perform at their best."

[M]ost people don't know that more than 100 research studies have shown that motivating people in this manner [rewards and punishments] can have the unintentional effect of undermining their internal drives."

Shankar Vedantam, When Play Becomes Work, Washington Post, July 28, 2008

I'm trying to get my mind around what this means for jobs, education and skills enhancement, and asset building. I was in Seattle a few months ago and a very experienced practitioner and investor reminded me that "It's all about the incentives, not the programs." Maybe not.

We all know plenty of incentives designed to enhance savings, job retention, career advancement, and doing good for your kids. Mayor Bloomberg's Conditional Cash Transfer program is testing a set of these incentives, drawing from experiments in Mexico. The Family Independence Initiative in the Bay Area is more about networks and incentives than programs, at least in its earliest incarnation. Project Match has tested incentives for advancement. Think of the important role of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other work supports.

Motivation is at the core of so many of our aspirations and interventions on behalf of people for them to move ahead, yet our programs seem better at reinforcing rather than generating motivation. And maybe we should worry more about undermining motivation. Yet, many evaluation studies punish us for working with the already motivated because this represents creaming or selection bias.

I can't count the number of times I've been asked,"How do you get somebody motivated?" I wonder how people would react if we had an abundance of really good jobs and clear pathways to get to them. Maybe they would figure it out all by themselves. On the other hand, what if people are motivated by family and community, not our definition of success or getting by?

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