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Motivation in the Workplace: Surprising New Science

Daniel Pink is the author of a phenomenal business book called Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He has given several talks about his conclusions, including one at TED, and another at the RSA. The RSA talk has been re-edited into this very cool animation:

Pink’s book takes a look at the relative effectiveness of extrinsic motivators (e.g. monetary rewards, title bumps, recognition, etc.) versus intrinsic rewards (i.e. factors that make a job fulfilling for its own sake).

His conclusions are counterintuitive, which in my experience usually means that they contain a lot of wisdom.

Through Pink’s analysis on several studies on motivation – most notably from Dr. Dan Ariely of MIT and Dr. Bernd Irlenbush from the London School of Economics – Pink extrapolates the following:

Daniel Pink, author of Drive

1) Traditional extrinsic motivators (sticks and carrots) do lead to better task completion, but only for tasks that are mechanical and iterative in nature, and that do not demand creativity. For tasks that involve creativity or sophisticated cognition, monetary rewards actually led to poorer performance when compared to a control group. This is because extrinsic motivators tend to narrow our focus as we concentrate on the finish line.

2) What we think of as “management” (controlling people through rewards and punishments) was invented in the mid nineteenth century, and worked well for a time when most workplace tasks did not require sophisticated thinking.

3) People do need to be paid well for their work in general, but rather than using money as an incentive for project completion, it is more productive to simply pay workers enough to “take the issue of money off the table,” so that it does not factor into the work being done. This clears the way for leveraging intrinsic motivators.

Pink enumerates three specific intrinsic motivators: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. He sites real world examples for how these principles operate in business:

Autonomy: Knowledgeable workers tend to want to do creative and interesting things with their knowledge, and management control typically gets in the way of that. Pink sites several companies – one of them is Google – who set aside specific time periods in which developers can work on whatever they want (work related or not), in whatever way they want, with whomever they want. In the case of Google, several of their most popular ideas like Gmail and Google News came from this type of autonomous work time.

Mastery: People tend to do interesting things simply for the reward of getting better at that thing. People will volunteer their time, sometimes in ways that are challenging and time consuming, for the sake of the challenge. Pink cites self-directed open-source projects like Linux and Apache as examples of projects undertaken for both the challenge and for making a contribution.

Purpose: Pink notes that flourishing companies tend to have a strong purpose motive that is attached to the profit motive. When the profit motive goes off on its own without a sense of purpose, bad things tend to happen (e.g. uninspired products, bureaucracy, and ethics problems).

A purpose doesn’t have to be altruistic, but it does have to be visionary. The purpose should be some kind of reason for being that might help get an employee up out of bed in the morning. People generally want to feel like they are contributing to a positive cause or collaboration greater than simple personal interests; that they are on a ship that’s going somewhere cool.

Pink asks us, as his main take-away, to consider a management style that treats humans more as humans. That is to say, not as the horses that you would expect to be motivated by sticks and carrots. People come with their own capacity for motivation built-in, and that capacity can be accessed more by creating a proper environment for it than by trying to ham-handedly control and force it.

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