“When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive and inert? Or are we wired to be active and engaged? I’m convinced that it’s the latter—that our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed.”
~ Daniel Pink
What really motivates people? Is it the promise of a reward? A paycheck or bonus? A prize? Recognition? Fame?
For those who are running a business or in any kind of leadership role at work, this is a very important question to answer, since the vast majority of workers report that they are feeling disengaged from their job.
Conventional wisdom about human behavior, and indeed the established dogma that I was taught back in undergrad (and even grad school!) is that a reward (positive reinforcement) or being able to get out of a situation we don’t like (negative reinforcement) increases a behavior, while a punishment or removal of a reward decrease a behavior. This conventional wisdom is so ingrained that it has shaped the way our schools are run, how we parent our children, and how businesses manage their employees.
The conventional wisdom, however, turns out to be…wrong.
Well, it’s more complicated than that. It turns out that rewards in the form of money or prizes can be very motivating but only for very simple boring, mechanical, repetitive tasks. However, when a task requires even the slightest bit of cognitive skill or creativity, monetary rewards actually undermine performance!
Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, summarizes the research on intrinsic motivation in a very engaging way.
Check out this video:
It turns out that there are three things that drive great performance and creativity:
However, that doesn’t mean that money isn’t important:
“One reason fair and adequate pay is so essential is that it takes people’s focus off money, which allows them to concentrate on the work itself.”
~ Daniel Pink
Another finding that completely contradicts established dogma is that punishment, particularly in the forms of fines or fees, does not reduce undesired behavior but actually increases it.
“When we design systems that assume bad faith from the participants, and whose main purpose is to guard against nasty behavior, we often foster the very behavior we’re trying to deter…By contrast, a web of rules that assumes good faith—as most autonomy-centered policies do—can actually encourage good behavior.”
~ Daniel Pink
So what is the practical take-away message from this? If you are in any kind of leadership role, whether you are a parent, teacher, own a business, manage a department, or work in a team, the number one thing to keep in mind is to listen to the people you work with. When other people (including children!) feel heard, understood, and respected, they are also much more likely to hear what you have to say. This fosters trust and empowerment.
It all comes down to what our basic assumption about human nature is. I think the research that Daniel Pink describes points to basic goodness. People are naturally motivated to give their best work, and give generously of their gifts, if they can. The point is to provide the environment that supports them in doing so, and to remove the obstacles that keep them from doing their best work.
If you are in a leadership role in the workplace, see if you can create an environment that fosters autonomy:
- Giving people the opportunity to share (and develop) their own ideas for how products and processes can be better.
- Giving them as much freedom as possible to decide when they work, how they work, and with whom they work.
- Giving them some percentage of time to work on any project of their choosing; giving employees shared ownership of the company.
Practical strategies that foster mastery include:
- Allowing people to collaboratively set their own performance goals.
- Peer to peer recognition for outstanding work, instead of top-down rewards or awards.
- Creating a collaborative, non-competitive work environment.
- Avoid incentive pay.
These are all strategies other companies have successfully used to foster a work environment where people are loyal and engaged.
The final big one is purpose. Pink points out that people tend to be quite selfless in the contributions they make to causes that give them a sense of purpose. They often make such contributions without any external reward—for free.
This flies in the face of the established dogma of economics. The notion that people are primarily self-interested and only motivated by money is simply not supported by empirical research.
When you ask people what they want to do with their life, or what they wish they could do with their life, have you noticed that the vast majority of people answer that they want to “make a difference” and “make the world a better place”?
It is no coincidence that having a sense of purpose and meaning is both one of the major sources of motivation and one of the main sources of happiness.
Companies that serve a higher purpose, such as solving major social problems or creating environmental sustainability tend to have a more motivated and engaged workforce.
Great examples of these types of companies are B-Corporations, and I have written about them in this article in elephant journal. The B-Corporation website offers a free assessment tool your business can use to assess its positive social and environmental impact.
If you hate your job and are looking for a change, ask yourself the following questions to avoid going from the frying pan into the fire:
- What is the hierarchical structure of the company where you would like to apply? Is it a steep, hierarchical, top-down organization, or is it a more horizontal organization?
- Is it a competitive or collaborative work environment?
- How much autonomy do workers have in how they do their job, with whom they
- work, and their work schedule?
- What is the higher purpose of the company?
- How does the company give feedback about worker performance?
These might also be great questions to ask during a job interview, to see if the company is the right fit for you!
Also check out Daniel Pink’s TED Talk:
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Karissa Kneeland / Editor: Catherine Monkman