Motivating people is one of the key jobs of leaders. From business life to parenting life, how do you best motivate or incentivize someone to do something that they are supposed to do, don't want to do, something they should do, or something that is good for them? I've been a in sales management in leadership for over 2 decades and have been a parent for 14, and I've read and listened to all the varying arguments on how to best motivate your team or your kids. Does incentivizing with money or prizes work, and/or how do you get them to want to do it on their own without being incentivized? Every situation is different and every person is different, so I've come to believe it's a combination of multiple methods used at different times with different people and those methods would likely need to evolve over time. This weekend I came head to head with this in my own family.
For the 2nd year in a row, my 3 boys and myself signed up to run a local race - The Festival of Lights - a one mile run for kids and 5k for everyone else. There were 1,300 racers signed up for the event. For me, I run regularly each week and use this race as a barometer for improving my own personal 5k time. I ran it in 23:40 last year and had a goal to go sub 23:00 this year. My two younger boys were running the 1 mile race, and my oldest son was running the 5k with me. My oldest son runs cross country for his school and several of his teammates were going to be running it. When I asked him earlier this week if he had a time he was shooting for, he said, 'No, we are just going to jog it for fun.' After thinking it over for a few days, I thought of an idea to turn this into a learning experience for him instead of just running it to run it. I walked into his room Thursday night (the race was Saturday), and I said, 'I've got a proposal for you. You can either choose to accept the challenge or you can pass, it really doesn't matter to me either way, but I wanted to present it to you.' Side note - my son is more active now in going out with friends and he gets a $10 allowance each week for chores, but any extra money he is usually down for earning it. So he then tells me to keep explaining, so I say, 'I know you have been wanting to run sub 20 minutes in a 5k (his best time previously was 21:30), so I will pay you a $100 bonus if you break 20 minutes at the race Saturday.' He replied, 'Ok, done deal. I accept!' and we shook hands. Walking out his bedroom door, I turned back and said, 'Oh, and I'll pay you an additional $5 for wearing a Grit Camp shirt and representing the brand - consider it a corporate sponsorship.' He accepted that as well.
I then offered a similar deal to my 9 year old with the same phrasing of, 'I have a proposal for you and you can either accept it reject it.' He recently ran a race at a 5:40 mile pace and would only be running a mile. So I offered to him that if he ran a sub 6 minute mile, then he would get $50 (plus $5 for wearing a Grit Camp shirt which he accepted as well). Lastly, I offered my 5 year old a $10 deal (plus $5 for the shirt) if he ran the entire mile without stopping. He accepted as well, and my wife planned to run alongside him during the race.
Saturday comes along and the one mile race is first. My middle son is concerned about making sure the route is clearly marked so he doesn't get lost. I told him to follow the person in front of him as surely there would be some speedy ripping off a 5 minute mile. But I told him just in case, follow the cop car which would likely be leading the way. The race takes off and at the midway point, he and 2 other runners are neck and neck for 1st place and are only about 4 feet behind the cop car! I then ran to the finish and waited for him to get there. Sure enough he had pulled ahead with a commanding lead and ended up winning the entire race! He didn't go sub 6 minutes, but since he WON the race, I made a concession that winning the race should warrant a $50 bonus. A few minutes later my youngest son comes around the corner and he finished his entire race without stopping (thanks to the coaching my wife provided him during the run!) and collected his $10 + $5 for wearing the shirt.
Shortly after, the 5k race starts and myself and my oldest son take off and we ran together for about the 1st mile and then he took off. He ended up finishing the race at 20:14 which was just above the sub 20 minute mark but it was one minute and 16 seconds better than his previous personal best (and finished 24th overall out of almost 1,000 runners). He didn't get the $100 bonus, but for running a personal best, I gave him a $50 bonus plus the $5 for wearing the Grit Camp shirt. I ended up finishing the race at 22:25 which beat my time from the previous year, so I felt good about reaching my personal goal as well.
I understand that by paying my boys based on performance is considered a bribe and one could argue that in the future they might ask for a cash bonus for another similar event. However, as I explained to them after the race, my message was this:
If you find something you are good at, you work really really hard at getting better and you become one of the best at doing it, then you will never worry about money.
It's obviously not limited to running as they can apply that mentality to anything and everything they do. My oldest son is using some of his funds to go to a movie with his friends tonight, and my younger boys are 're-investing' some of their winnings into some gems on some app game they play. More importantly, they were rewarded for doing something hard that initially scared them and at some point wanted to quit, but they kept going and did their best. As a result they have some additional resources to buy some things that interest them.
My grandad used to always say to us grandkids when he bought us something: 'I'm giving while I'm living so I'm knowing where it's going!' I try and apply a similar philosophy with my kids, and I want them to understand that money isn't everything and is essentially just a tool and a resource. But if I can use money as a teaching tool to help my kids latch on and understand the underlying principle I want them to learn, then the money will have been put to good use. Hopefully, once they have learned and applied those principles and take them to heart and have examples of success stories from their past that they can build on, then in future endeavors they will be motivated to achieve it without the incentive of money. I also know that having a successful achievement like this under their belt will be a lot more valuable to them in the long run than the money they will have received from it. The money will be spent and gone but the memory of this achievement will be a chink on their armor that will always stay with them.