How do you feel about motivation? When I was in college, I remember doing an exercise that I would describe as mental gymnastics we performed to come up with different kinds of motivating techniques for those who are intrinsically motivated and for others who are externally motivated. That was only one segment of a class, but it was hard work. In this guest post by Susan Fowler, author of the book WHY MOTIVATING PEOPLE DOESN’T WORK… AND WHAT DOES: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing, she tells the story of a marketing technique that, instead of motivating, has the opposite effect. Be curious. Read here about why creating a competitive environment is pretty much a fail.

Alternatives to Motivating Others Without Contests and Prizes

Every day when we open our email, snail mail, and even our junk mail, we’re inundated with opportunities to win, win, win! Even in my weekly “Buy One Get One” booklet they offer me the chance to win $500 by finding their hidden clues. This mailer is designed to save me money. Why do they have to “lure” me in with the offer of a quick cash prize?

Last week I received this incentive-based email: Send us your video describing three secrets to happiness. Winner gets an iPhone 6. I happened to be on a conference call where a number of people had also received this email. Their reactions were fascinating:

Voice 1: My first thought was, yay, an iPhone 6! That’s a great prize! I want an iPhone 6; I’ll send my video. But, there are so many other people competing for that iPhone, the likelihood of winning is so slim, I give up! I’m not that creative.
Voice 2: I don’t think the prize is that big of a deal. I already have an iPhone 6.
Voice 3: I recorded my message when they first asked for videos two days ago—I thought it was a cool opportunity to share some ideas I’m passionate about. There was no mention of a prize. I didn’t realize it was a contest, so maybe I shouldn’t send it in. But, maybe someone will benefit from my secrets. I guess I’ll send it in.
Voice 2: Good for you, you are a better person than I am.

I know that the people who sponsor these contests have the best of intentions. They hope to “motivate” people to participate in activities or programs they believe are worth promoting. Unfortunately, they all share a fatal flaw. Contests and prizes have the opposite effect of their intention. Contests and prizes distract people from higher-quality reasons to do what you are asking them to do.

  • Voice 1 was externally motivated by the iPhone. This is a suboptimal motivational outlook. Once they determined the prize and the chances of winning weren’t worth the effort, they were no longer interested.
  • Voice 2 was disinterested in the prize and checked out of the contest immediately. Again, this was a suboptimal outlook. By not aligning the video request with meaningful values or connecting it to a greater purpose, there was no desire to participate.
  • The only person who sent a video was Voice 3, who had taken action before the activity became a contest. Voice 3 had an optimal motivation outlook because of a need to share important ideas.

The science of motivation has valid proof that being distracted by a “prize” undermines people’s three basic psychological needs:

  1. Attaching a prize or reward to a request shifts people’s attention to something they cannot control—winning the prize—and undermines their sense of autonomy.
  2. Competition pits individual against individual—setting up a scenario where you have a bunch of disappointed losers and one winner—and undermines people’s sense of relatedness. The prize changes the focus away from the value, purpose, and fun of the activity, adding to diminished relatedness.
  3. Competition pressures people to be the best—not to be their best, but the best—and pressure not only results in thwarting people’s autonomy, it undermines creativity, performance, and their sense of competence.

Knowing this, why do we keep throwing contests and prizes at people as motivation strategies? Before you default to a contest to prompt participation in a fun event, healthy activity, or meaningful behavior change, consider these alternatives:

  • Question why the contest is necessary. If you have to bribe people to do what you want them to do, maybe your event, activity or proposed behavior change isn’t fun, practical, or compelling—even if it’s for their own good. Research shows that when people are motivated by the prize, shortly after the contest ends, they revert back to their old behavior, or worse. Rethink what you are asking.
  • Consider how you position your request. Have you been clear about the focus, meaning, and purpose of what you are asking? Have you explained, for example, why you care about others’ ideas of happiness? Imposing values on people will backfire. But, being honest about your values and clearly articulating the reasons underlying your request gives people the choice to agree or find their own good reasons for participating.
  • Help people find a deeper, more meaningful reason for participating. Ask: Why participate in this activity? Why make a video with three secrets to happiness? You cannot impose reasons on people, but you can help them remember how much fun it is to share crazy ideas that make others laugh; you can ignite their desire to contribute to a legacy of collective wisdom, or stimulate awareness of the joy that comes from helping others. Take the time to help people think beyond the prize.

There may be a time and place for contests, but people need the skill to convert pressure into positive energy, shift an external focus to internal resourcefulness, and reframe scores into data that provides valuable insights about growth and learning. People need to understand how to align participation in the contest with their own developed values, sense of purpose, or intrinsic joy. Don’t distract them by asking them to keep their eye on a prize that may never come. They will be rewarded in more meaningful ways than any prize you can afford. And, then everyone is a winner.

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains WHY MOTIVATING PEOPLE DOESN’T WORK… AND WHAT DOES: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more resources, including a free Motivational Outlook Assessment with immediate results, visit

Editor’s Note: This Article was originally published on on 3/20/2015.

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Jane Anderson
JANE’s professional experience is scattered across industries from financial services and insurance to engineering and manufacturing. Jane sees her background in writing and editing website content as the foundation to her current love of social media. Being an avid reader, meticulous note taker and lifelong learner has fostered her natural pursuit of sharing her world through writing. Reading books and summarizing content started as a hobby and has since grown to be a major part of her vocational experience. Jane says, “Authors pour their heart and soul into writing their book. When I write a review, it’s with intent to celebrate the book and promote the author.” Jane claims to be 'the best follower you'll ever want to meet' and has been repeatedly called servant leader, eternal cheerleader, social media evangelist, and inspirational go-to person.

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I suspect that those offering contests, and those participating, are acting on the innate human trait of getting something for nothing. Does it work as a motivator? Clearly it motivates many people to enter the contest (s) or the odds of winning would be much higher. However, I agree that often the product or service behind the contest is lost in the shuffle and therefor the motivation achieved is wasted.

I never found motivating people to be a great mystery. I’m amazed that people can make a living telling others how to do it.

Chris Pehura

Good article. I find the traditional theories behind motivation really awesome; especially what retail uses. Though those promotions for winning the “prize” really bastardizes those theories.

Jeanine Joy, Ph.D.

Jane, This is a great summary of why carrots don’t work to motivate people. This is a topic I have a growing enthusiasm for because I see so many companies attempting to use carrots to motivate employees to better pro-health wellness behaviors who are shooting themselves in the foot replacing intrinsic motivation with carrots. Deci and Ryan are the two researchers whose work really changed my thoughts about motivation but your article would have done it if I hadn’t read their research first. Thanks!