Towards the later days of BrainGain, shortly before I ultimately moved on, I learned an important lesson about motivation…and how it’s different for everyone.

While many of us believe that money is the sole motivator in life, from my experience I have seen that it’s actually quite the opposite – Money is the easy low hanging fruit. Purpose, meaning, substance – those are the real aims of most.

Here is my story working with my best friend and how he taught me this lesson…

2017 started off very strong. After restructuring the company by outsourcing and automating everything that we could, it was back to the two original co-founders trying to save the company.

But I could tell that something was off with my buddy. He didn’t seem as into it any more. Seemed distant. Distracted.

I remember one day we discussed goal setting. I complained he was setting his goals too low. He wasn’t pushing himself. His past performance suggested he could be hitting better numbers…but he resisted holding himself to that standard.  

Frustrated by our conversation, I went to go walk my dog and thought about how to motivate him.

My father had always stressed “how can you expect him to be motivated when you don’t pay him any money?!!?” and I thought about this in the context of our business…and how here he was, working his ass off for 2 years, making next to no money.

I put myself in his shoes. He just moved back to the US, has a wife, is nearly 30 years old, wants to have a baby, and needs to start making a sustainable living. He needed to make more money.

I thought to myself, “how can I put more money in his pockets to keep him happy?”

I decided to pitch him on the idea of paying him performance based commissions. For every person he had sign up,/submit a resume/get an interview, I would pay him.

It seemed like an easy way to put money in his pocket tied to results he generated for the company.

Excited to share the news with him, I immediately called him up.

However, his reaction surprised me….He didn’t want to be paid.

What?! Who doesn’t want more money?!?!

He said that he cared more about the mission of the company. While it would be great to be paid, he didn’t want to drain our cash flows. He wanted to make money when the company made money.

He was true to the mission, and if we weren’t achieving our goals as a company, he didn’t want to be paid.

I was floored. Stumped. I was so excited to share this new plan with him, but he didn’t want it.

More importantly, it showed me that he wasn’t motivated by money.

It was both exciting and frustrating. He was a real trooper – he was here for the mission, not the money. On the other hand, I needed a way for him to step up his performance, but money wasn’t going to be the way to do it.

I wish I could say I had a better solution…but I didn’t. We eventually didn’t get the results we needed, which meant he couldn’t pay himself even if I did pay him…which led to us going our separate ways before I ultimately left the company for new projects as well.

But what can be learned from this situation?

Many times we try to throw money at our problems. Someone isn’t motivated enough? Let’s try to throw more money at them in the form of incentives! Increase commissions. Higher bonuses!

We believe that money is what will get people to perform better, but in reality it’s quite the opposite.

It’s actually the intangibles. The people they work with. Responsibility. Learning. THESE play more of an impact on motivation than money (not for all, but definitely for a large group of people).

I once saw a presentation by Eric Savage, Founder of Unitus Capital. He discussed how the three primary motivating factors of an employee (all more so than money) are as follows:

    • Autonomy: Being able to act independently and have creative freedom to make decisions.
    • Learning: How much will I be able to learn in this role and how will it help me to grow in the future?
    • Impact: Working on something that is bigger than yourself. An ability to have an impact on the world via the work that you are doing.

I agree with Mr. Savage. Moreso than money, most people are actually motivated by autonomy, learning, and impact.

So when we think about how we can motivate the people we work with, when we think about how we can get our teammates to step their game up – THIS is how you do it.

Don’t take the easy way out and try to throw money at the person – speak to their inner values. Speak to what they want out of life. Give them something that they can truly feel good about.

I’ll speak for myself as well – I’m in the first “normal” job I’ve probably ever had – and I’ve taken less money in order to have freedom to work from home and my role involves managing a remote team – the two things that are most important to me.

You can motivate people with how they can impact the world via their work. Motivate people with freedom to make decisions as they prove that they have been able to make the correct ones. Motivate people with new opportunities to grow, learn, and get outside of their comfort zone.

This is how you motivate people…not the shallow minded money hunting 😉

Also published on Medium.

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