The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

What drives employees to do their best work? Numerous companies operate under the prevailing belief that the key to motivating workers is giving them tangible rewards, including cash bonuses. In Daniel’s Pink groundbreaking book, Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, he proposes persuasively that these companies have it all wrong. Popular thinking is that reward practices that are built around external, carrot and-stick motivators, aimed to boost productivity. But in fact this idea is outmoded because the studies from behavioral science consistently suggest that the key to high performance and workplace is intrinsic, internal motivation.

The set of assumptions to which our HR practices are operated under are almost entirely around extrinsic motivation. That is, the mechanistic if-then reward and punishment approach. If-then rewards work really well for ‘algorithmic’ work – tasks that have a set of simple set of rules and clear destination to go, like many of the 20th century job responsibilities. However, these tasks are now outdated where today’s challenges are ‘heuristic’ – where problems are complex and solution is not obvious.  In the U.S., only 30% of job growth comes from algorithmic work, while 70% comes from heuristic work. A key reason being routine work can be outsourced or automated; artistic, non-routine work generally cannot.

Well, Pink suggests that the starting point any discussion of motivation in the workplace is simple fact of life: People have to earn a living. If employee compensation isn’t adequate or equitable, the focus will be on the unfairness of the situation.  Without fairness in baseline compensation you’ll get very little motivation at all.  But once we’re past that threshold, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.  Rewards can transform an interesting task into a drudge.  They can turn play into work.  Traditional “if-then” rewards can give us less of what we want.  They can:

• Extinguish intrinsic motivation
• Diminish performance
• Crush creativity,
• Crowd out good behavior
• Encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior
• Become addictive
• Foster short-term thinking

“This idea was first suggested in the 1960s, when psychologist Sam Glucksberg, now at Princeton University, experimented with the “candle problem,” a test in which participants are given a candle, matches and a box of tacks and asked to fix the candle to a wall (the solution lies in using the box as a platform). Volunteers who were offered cash to solve the problem fast actually took longer to finish because, as Glucksberg concluded, focusing on the reward interfered with the volunteers’ ability to concentrate on completing the task at hand. In a more recent study, researchers at Harvard Business School asked a panel of artists and curators to rate pieces of artwork for creativity and technical skill without knowing whether or not the works were commissioned. The panel ended up ranking commissioned pieces lower in creativity than noncommissioned pieces, even though they found no difference in technical skill.”

Drawing on four decades of scientific research, Daniel Pink suggest the indispensable three elements of intrinsic motivation – autonomy, mastery, purpose.

Autonomy – the desire to direct ones own life.

It may seem counter intuitive but giving autonomy and freedom over what employees do and when they do it, is motivating in a way incentives are not. It is essentially management getting out of people’s way – to allow them to generate their best work.

Mastery – the desire to get better and better at something that matters.

This is a powerful motivator organizations often neglect. A recent study at Harvard Business School demonstrated the biggest motivator for workers was getting better at something and making progress in their work. So one of the most motivating things a manager can do is to help workers see, and acknowledge the progress they are making.

Purpose – people do better work when they feel they are contributing to something bigger than themselves.

Often employees don’t see how what they do matters in a broader context. Managers can enhance motivation by demonstrating how what people are doing matters and how it contributes to what the organization is trying to achieve – not just for themselves but for the community they serve.

Drive underscores businesses that promotes these principles. For instance,” Google allows its engineers work on any project they choose for 20 percent of their work time—a policy that has yielded popular products, including Google News. Toms Shoes in California matches every sale with a charitable donation of a pair of shoes to a child in the developing world. Pink also cites educational institutions such as Montessori schools that let kids follow their natural curiosity in self-directed activities. Moving beyond the world of work, he advocates designing your own exercise program rather than following a gym’s cookie-cutter one to motivate you to break a sweat.”

In conclusion, businesses ought to be acutely aware of the importance of such intrinsic motivation. Left ignored at their own peril, the companies may face unprecedented negative implications and opportunities in their workforce.