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The Pain or Gain Principle


by Glenn Shepard
July 11, 2017
Category: Management




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Did You Know?

People who get less than six hours of sleep per night are twice as likely to die from heart disease or stroke. 

Source:  Journal of the American Heart Association
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"The Pleasure Principle".

That's the term Sigmund Freud made famous.

Other psychologists call it the "Pain or Pleasure" principle". Still others call it the "Pain or Gain" principle.

No matter what you call it, it works because there are two reasons people do anything:

1. They want something positive
2. They want to avoid something negative

The million dollar question is "Which is the more powerful motivator?"

And the answer is that the vast majority of people will do more to avoid something negative than to gain something positive.

Here's proof:

Imagine that you're trying to lose weight because it's getting close to summer, and you want to look good in a bathing suit.

That's the desire for pleasure.

But after months of eating rice cakes and not seeing any noticeable changes in your appearance, it's understandable how you might lose your motivation.

Now imagine that your best friend who is morbidly obese suddenly has to have his right leg amputated because of complications from his obesity. Seeing your friend lose a leg because he wouldn’t lose weight would make you more motivated to lose weight than you've ever been in your life.

This is the principle the Centers for Disease Control used in a series of very controversial but highly effective anti-smoking commercials titled "Tips from Former Smokers".

They were very explicit in showing how people had lost their hair, their voices, their teeth, etc. as a result of smoking. The one that still resonates in my mind is the guy who says "When you have a voice box, you have to stay away from spray paint and be very careful shaving.)

(Click here if you haven’t seen them. Warning: They are VERY explicit.)

Here's how this applies to you as a manager.

Your company may offer the most wonderful incentives, fringe benefits, and compensation package in the world. And that will appeal to some people.

But you're always going to have at least one employee who’s the proverbial underachiever. He'll do the least amount of work he can do to keep this job, and nothing more. He is not going to respond to any of those incentives.

The only thing that will get through to him is when he is in fear of losing his job and not being able to feed his family.

This is why studies have found that money is a motivator, but only up to about the $50,000 mark. When somebody is struggling to feed their family and keep a roof over their head, that fear will motivate them. But once people reach a point where they're able to pay their bills and feel relatively secure, more money has appeal, which means it has less power to motivate.

While you shouldn’t use the threat of termination as your primary motivator, it does have to be part of the equation. (If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who's ever worked in an organization where it's virtually impossible to get rid of employees, how hard it is to motivate people in that situation.)

If you want people to do what you want them to do, there has to be a reward for good behavior. But there also has to be a reward for bad behavior, because one without the other doesn’t work very well.

To Your Success,


Glenn Shepard

Terrie Hall, who is the woman in the video and possibly the best Poster Girl anti-smoking advocates have ever had, died shortly after filming that commercial.

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