Parents, picture this: your child has just taken a test they’ve been studying for. Do you usually wait for good test results before you take them out for ice cream?

Leaders, picture this: an employee has been working long hours on a report. Do you usually wait to see its final quality before you recognize their effort?

If you answered yes to either of these, you may need to rethink your strategy.

In a commencement speech at Stanford, Sundar Pichai said 4 words that encapsulated years of research on the psychology of human motivation: “Reward efforts, not outcomes.”

What he’s tapping into here is creating sources of intrinsic motivation. This means motivating people to do something because they truly enjoy it, love the challenge, or find it interesting. As opposed to seeking a reward (or avoiding a punishment). 

In other words, make results kind of irrelevant.

This might sound counterintuitive. After all, what’s in it for you? What you really want is that good test score, or that excellent report, right?

Think again. In reality, science backs the intrinsic route. Here’s why you should too. Your employees and your kids will thank you for it.

Your employees (and kids) will procrastinate less

It’s all well and good to preach a results-driven ethos – until you actually have to get down to living it.

Being results-driven is a form of extrinsic motivation. This means that the motivation behind your behavior is either the seeking of a specific external reward (higher salary, social clout) or the avoidance of a specific external punishment (getting fired).

It turns out, this orientation is terrible for long term productivity. 

The external thresholds against which we measure our worth are usually dictated by the environments we’re in. So, when we become so focused on the goal and the precise steps needed to achieve it, we can fall into the trap of socially-prescribed perfectionism (SPP). 

These are all unpleasant feelings. And what do we do to avoid those? We procrastinate.

Your employees (and kids) will think outside the box

When effort, not outcome, is rewarded, we are more likely to take risks. 

That’s how innovation is born.

Why? When our performance is not judged by its ‘destination’, we feel more confident in pushing and pulling the ‘journey’ and contorting it into something unique and unplanned. In fact, research shows that intrinsic motivation has a positive effect on creative and innovative performance.

That’s because when we’re intrinsically motivated, we feel a sense of ownership over our work, connect deeply to its metaphysical meaning, brush up on relevant skills that will make us more competent, and feel confident in the story we’re pushing for. 

It’s no wonder, then, that through rewarding efforts and not outcomes, Google was one of the very first companies to be completely carbon-neutral (2007) long before sustainable practices debuted in the mainstream. 

Your employees (and kids) will be motivated – and stay motivated

When we’re motivated by external rewards, life becomes an equation: Put in X work, get out Y reward. The problem with this is that it can bypass the need for introspection. And that’s where the magic happens. 

Focusing on what really motivates us about what we do – how emotionally invested we are in it, how interested we are in it, how it contributes to who we want to become – is an endless well, and is therefore a more sustainable type of motivation. 

And the proof is in the pudding. For example, research shows that students who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to put in greater effort. All this results in better performance long term. 

Not only that, but being intrinsically motivated also means we’re propelled by shorter-term, skills-relevant goals. 

So, on the one hand, we’re not disengaged from a goal that’s too far in the future, and, on the other, we’re not stuck in a ‘hare and tortoise’ situation where we get disinterested in goals that are too reachable.

That’s a motivational sweet-spot. It’s there you find your employees, teams, and yes, your kids, who are happy, healthy, productive, and fulfilled.

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