We all have experienced a lack of motivation at work. It's not that something is too difficult, but we procrastinate. How do some employees seem to develop the motivation to change while others struggle to start or persevere? Intentions without actions are only aspirations. You can't be successful in life or work without motivation, yet finding it is a struggle in some situations. So, can you motivate yourself to do something you don't want to get a result you really do want? A significant amount of behavioral psychology evidence suggests that the Premack Principle provides the key to unlocking motivation. Psychology is the same whether starting a more challenging workout, an advanced leadership certificate, or an undesired task at home or work. Here are four steps you can take to develop more motivation when you find yourself or those you lead procrastinating.
Why work motivation matters
Developing motivation is crucial because it allows us to change, grow, innovate, achieve big goals, make plans, and enhance our engagement. As a leader, motivation is a catalyst for business growth and organizational effectiveness.
"Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action." William James
Procrastination comes at a cost, and in this short video by Tim Urban, he explains the mind of a master procrastinator.
Work motivation is the force within (intrinsic) and beyond (extrinsic) an employee to initiate work-related behaviors. The degree of an employee's motivation influences the intensity and duration of work behaviors.
Evidence from numerous studies suggests that increased work motivation leads to the following:
Enhanced innovation and creativity
One of the earliest and most discussed models of motivation is Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory. Maslow suggested that physiological needs motivate employees. The requirements for food and water are at the most basic level, and self-actualization is at the highest level.
Another early model from Herzberg suggested that work motivation is mainly influenced by challenge and reward reinforcement.
Motivators increase job satisfaction, such as performance achievement, recognition, job status, and development.
Hygiene Factors decrease job dissatisfaction, such as salary, working conditions, physical workspace, and supervisor quality.
More recent studies have led to the categorization of work motivation into four categories:
Positive-Negative. Positive motives include things perceived as pleasurable. Negative motives are those things perceived as punishment or fear.
Intrinsic-Extrinsic. Intrinsic is doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic refers to doing something because it leads to a reward.
Cognitive-Affective. Cognitive includes doing something for knowledge and mental or intellectual development, whereas affective is doing something for feelings or emotions.
Economic-Moral. Economic motives are to achieve a goal associated with a fundamental need or support a desired standard of living. Moral motivation is to do something right or avoid doing something wrong.
Evidence suggests that intrinsic motivation is more effective in the long term than extrinsic motivation. The Premack Principle is based on intrinsic motivation.
What is the Premack Principle?
The Premack Principle states that you will perform a less preferred (low probability) behavior to gain access to a more preferred (high probability) behavior. This might sound vaguely familiar if you are like me. I remember hearing my parents say that if you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert. This principle explains how you can arrange contingencies to motivate yourself and others.
However, the most significant leadership challenge often comes from accurately identifying the high-probability behavior. For example, you may enjoy reading versus watching a movie in your free time. But if you just finished reading a lengthy book, you may choose to go for a walk. Intrinsic motivation can change depending on the situation, how we feel, or what we have been doing.
Here is a short video from leadership and behavior management expert Dr. Daniels on productivity and the Premack Principle.
4 Steps to develop more motivation at work
Here are four steps to help you accurately implement the Premack Principle for yourself or others to develop more motivation in the workplace.
Motivation Step 1: Make a list of what needs to get done.
Start by creating a list of what needs to get done. Take about five minutes and write down everything you need to accomplish that is on your mind. When working with others, have them complete this task rather than attempting to guess. If implementing this principle with a new employee, it may help to have them use their job description.
Motivation Step 2: Pinpoint the low-probability and high-probability behaviors.
The more precisely you pinpoint a behavior leads to a more accurate and reliable behavior ranking. Rank the list from what you most like doing to what you least like doing. Get curious about what is motivating. When working with those you lead, you may find it helpful to create a structured reinforcement survey to learn about how employees spend their free time outside work. Although motivators are not always good reinforcers, they help enhance understanding.
Motivation Step 3: Effectively communicate the contingency.
Effective communication moderates implementation effectiveness and typically involves more than sending an email. The contingency refers to what follows a low-probability behavior to increase the probability of that behavior. Don't expect this to be obvious, and check for understanding.
Motivation Step 4: Start at the bottom.
Start with the item at the bottom of the list (low probability behavior) from step 2. When working up the list, each task becomes more desirable. Working down the list of tasks becomes more punishing. Studies have shown you will get two to three times more done by starting at the bottom of your list. One caveat is that if the bottom of your inventory is full of extreme drudgery, you will benefit by making the desired behavior the immediate following action for every third or fourth drudgery task.
Motivation matters, especially for achieving big goals in life and work. As a leader, when you leverage the Premack Principle using the steps listed above, developing more motivation in others becomes easier.
But let's be honest; we don't always get these steps right in the real world. It is essential to maintain a mindset of experimentation rather than simply success or failure. What is your real challenge with implementing the Premack Principle at work?
Daniels, A. C. (2000). Bringing out the best in people: How to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement (New & updated.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Dalphonse, A. (2022). Premack principle: A guide to using the first/then rule. Master ABA.
Fishbach, A. (2018). How to keep working when you're not feeling it. Harvard Business Review.
Klatt, K. & Morris, E. (2001). The Premack principle, response deprivation, and establishing operations. The Behavior Analyst, 24(2), 173-180.
Reed, C. (2022). The truth about motivating employees to be more productive. National Business Research Institute.
Vo, T., Tuliao, K., & Chen, C. (2022). Work Motivation: The Roles of Individual Needs and Social Conditions. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 12(2), 49.